Belford Vance Lawson Jr. made history as the first African American to win a Supreme Court case in the United States. His landmark victory paved the way for greater equality and justice for people of colour. Belford Vance Lawson Jr. was also the first African-American president of the YMCA.
Belford Lawson was born on the 9th of July, 1901, in Roanoke, Virginia. He attended the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan. A football lover himself, Lawson played for the university football team and was the school’s second-ever African-American varsity player after George Henry Jewett II. In 1922, Lawson became part of the Epsilon chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha. He earned his Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) in 1924.
Belford Lawson’s career began when he taught social science and directed the Teachers’ Professional Department at Jackson College (now Jackson State University). While at Jackson College, Lawson headed the school’s football team and served as its athletic director. He taught at Morris Brown College in Atalanta, Georgia, as well.
Lawson attended classes at Yale Law School for two years until his funds ran out. After taking a job offer at the Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Company in Washington D.C. in 1931, he finally fulfilled his dream to study law at the Howard Law School. Two years later, Lawson was admitted to the District of Columbia Bar. He opened a law firm with the help of his Alpha Phi Alpha brother, Cincinnati lawyer Theodore Moody Berry.
In 1933, Belford Lawson founded the New Negro Alliance (NNA) in Washington, D.C., along with John A. Davis Sr and M. Franklin Thorne. The main purpose of NNA was to confront White-owned businesses in Black communities that refused to hire blacks. Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work was the name of the NNA’s campaign against White business owners who refused to hire Blacks. As this affected the financial turnover of these white businesses, the owners retaliated with a lawsuit. In 1938, Lawson and Marshall fought back.
In New Negro Alliance v. Sanitary Grocery Co. the Supreme Court upheld the NNA’s right to boycott employers, meaning the NNA won the case. The case became a landmark for African Americans who were discriminated against in the hiring process.
Lawson was also key in getting Thurgood Marshall to file Murray v. Maryland in 1935, which challenged segregation at the University of Maryland School of Law. Belford Lawson was a member of the legal team that won the 1950 Southern Railway Company v. Henderson case, which led to the abolition of segregation in railroad dining cars. In 1973, Lawson was elected President of the YMCA of the USA.
Lawson’s wife, Marjorie McKenzie Lawson, was also an attorney who served as the first African-American female judge to receive senatorial confirmation to the newly created Juvenile Court of the District of Columbia.
Belford Lawson died in Washington, D.C., on 23 February 1985. He was 83 years old.