Professor preaches balanced view of minorities
William A. Lawson vividly remembers a Houston environment far different than its inhabitants are now accustomed to. He recalls an early 1960s era when schools were segregated, and as the director of the Baptist Student Union at Texas Southern University, he watched as his students were arrested for organizing student sit-ins during the Civil Rights Movement.
Amid this turbulent time in race relations, Lawson raised money to free his students, helped galvanize support to desegregate schools, and helped form the African-American Studies program at the University of Houston.
Forty years later, Lawson has returned to UH to teach a graduate course focusing on discrimination in a different kind of institution.
“In Texas, there is an overwhelming overpopulation of minority males (in jail),” Lawson said. “I think the Texas justice system reflects the old Texas pre-Civil Rights segregation pattern.”
Lawson now teaches the Over Representation of Minority Males in the Criminal Justice System summer course in the UH Graduate College of Social Work. Now a retired pastor from the Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church, which he founded, Lawson was invited in 2007 by Dean Ira Colby to teach at the school.
“Since I’m not a professor, I felt that one of the best ways to talk about the criminal justice system was first to look at what causes our present problem,” Lawson said.
Lawson encourages his students to take a balanced look at all factors that contribute to the increasing number of minorities in jail, focusing on actual crime statistics as well as societal and racial factors.
“If you start with racism, then you’ve probably started wrong,” Lawson said. “You almost certainly have to start with actual crime. Poverty and a broken criminal justice system are sort of twins.”
To present his class with real world situations, Lawson brings in guest speakers to share their experiences. Guests during this summer’s course included authority figures such as the Harris County District Attorney Patricia Lykos, Police Chief Charles McClelland, and Judge Belinda Hill. Lawson also brought in Cornelius Dupree, who was falsely imprisoned for 30 years in Houston and freed last year through DNA evidence.
“He’s got a sweet disposition for a guy who’s been unjustly imprisoned that long,” Lawson said regarding Dupree. “He isn’t blaming the system; he simply recognizes that it’s a broken system. This is what the class is about.”
Lawson has received much praise and many awards for his work in the Houston area throughout the years. His organization, the William A. Lawson Institute for Peace and Prosperity, has established a public middle school for boys and constructed 50 apartment units for seniors in Third Ward. However, when asked about his induction into the Houston Hall of Fame, the pastor, teacher and leader can hardly remember it.
“We have never gone too much for trophies and awards and things of that sort,” Lawson said. “We are far better off when we learn that some kid has finished our middle school, finished high school and has been inducted into West Point. That means a lot more to us than those various awards.”