I, Harold L Carter, met and talked with Brother General President Belford Lawson when I was an undergraduate national officer, Eastern Assistant Vice President, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity and he was my mentor and intellectual hero who I greatly admired for his intelligence and stimulating oratorical speeches.

Belford Lawson, Jr.

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Belford Lawson, Jr.
Born (1901-07-09)July 9, 1901
Roanoke, Virginia, United States
Died February 23, 1985(1985-02-23) (aged 83)
Washington, D.C.
Alma mater Howard University
Yale Law School
University of Michigan
Occupation Lawyer
Known for New Negro Alliance v. Sanitary Grocery Co.
President of Alpha Phi Alpha
President of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA)

Belford Vance Lawson, Jr. (July 9, 1901 – February 23, 1985) was an American attorney and civil rights activist who made at least eight appearances before the U.S. Supreme Court. He was the first African-American man to win a case before the Supreme Court and the first African-American president of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA).[1][2]

Early life

Lawson attended the University of Michigan and was the school’s second African-American varsity football player (having been preceded by George Jewett in the 1890s) and the only African American on the varsity during Fielding H. Yost‘s coaching tenure.[3][4][5][6]

In 1924, after graduating from Michigan, Lawson was hired the head football coach and athletic director at Jackson College (now known as Jackson State University), a historically black college in Jackson, Mississippi. He also served as a professor of social science and the director of the Teachers’ Professional Department.[7] In Lawson’s three years as the head football coach at Jackson College, the team compiled a record of 0–3 and was outscored 54 to 0.[8]

Lawson was also reported to have held a position as a professor of economics at Morris Brown College in Atlanta, Georgia. Morris Brown president John Lewis, a Yale University graduate, was instrumental with Lawson’s acceptance to Yale Law School, although Lawson would receive his J.D. from Howard University School of Law in 1932.[1][9]


In 1933, Lawson founded the New Negro Alliance (NNA) in Washington, D.C., along with John A. Davis, Sr. and M. Franklin Thorne, to combat white-owned businesses in black neighborhoods that would not hire black employees.[10] The NNA instituted a then-radical Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work campaign, and organized or threatened boycotts against white-owned businesses. In response, some businesses arranged for an injunction to stop the picketing. Lawson, the lead attorney, with assistance by Thurgood Marshall, fought back – all the way to the United States Supreme Court in New Negro Alliance v. Sanitary Grocery Co. (1938) that safeguarded a right to boycott.[11] This became a landmark case in the struggle by African Americans against discriminatory hiring practices, and Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work groups multiplied throughout the nation. The NNA estimated that by 1940, the group had secured 5,106 jobs for blacks because businesses could not afford to lose sales during the Great Depression.[12] In 1934, Lawson encouraged National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) special counsel Charles Houston to authorize Thurgood Marshall to file the case of Murray v. Maryland (1935) to challenge University of Maryland School of Law laws requiring racial segregation in its colleges. Marshall won the case, and Donald Murray was admitted to the university’s law school.

Lawson was part of the legal team that won Henderson v. Southern Railway Company (1950), challenging the Interstate Commerce Commission‘s approval of railroad racial segregation practices. The lawsuit resulted in the abolishing of segregation in railroad dining cars.[1]

Lawson was the 16th General President of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first intercollegiate Greek letter organization established by African Americans.[13] The fraternity sponsors an annual Belford V. Lawson Oratorical Contest in which collegiate members demonstrate their oratorical skills first at the chapter level, with the winner competing at the state, regional and general convention. The fraternity says “the purpose of the Belford V. Lawson Oratorical Contest is to identify problems or special topics of interest within society and determine how the problem or topic relates to the goals and objectives of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Incorporated.”[14] Lawson rented the third floor of his Logan Circle home to fraternity brother and Representative Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. during Powell’s tenure in Congress.[15][16]

In 1973, Lawson was elected President of the National Council of the YMCA. He died in Washington, D.C., in 1985, after having battled Alzheimer’s disease and cancer.[1][2]


  1. Company, Johnson Publishing (March 11, 1985). “Rites for Belford Lawson, 1st Black Atty. in U.S. To Win Supreme Court Case”. Jet (Chicago, Illinois: Johnson Publishing Company) 67 (26): 5. ISSN 0021-5996. Retrieved November 28, 2009. 
  2. “Belford Lawson, Retired Lawyer, Is Dead at 83”. The Washington Post. February 24, 1985. pp. B8. Retrieved November 28, 2009. 
  3.  “1921 Michigan football team roster”. Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan. 
  4. “1922 Michigan football team roster”. Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan. 
  5. “1923 Michigan football team roster”. Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan. 
  6. James Tobin (October 2009). “The Belford Lawson Mystery”. Ann Arbor Chronicle. 
  7. “Tiger Football History”. Jackson State University. 
  8. “B.V. Lawson Records by Year”. College Football Data Warehouse. 
  9. Mason, Herman (1999). “Belford Vance Lawson”. The Talented Tenth: The Founders and Presidents of Alpha (2nd ed.). Winter Park, FL: Four-G. ISBN 1-885066-63-5. 
  10.  “New Negro Alliance’s Sanitary Grocery Protest Site”. Cultural Tourism DC. Retrieved April 17, 2009. [dead link]
  11. “NEW NEGRO ALLIANCE v. SANITARY GROCERY CO.”. Retrieved January 5, 2008. 
  12. “New Negro Alliance’s Sanitary Grocery Protest Site”. Cultural Tourism DC. Archived from the original on December 5, 2007. Retrieved January 5, 2008. 
  13. Parks, Gregory S. (2008). Black Greek-Letter Organizations in the Twenty-First Century: Our Fight Has Just Begun. Foreword by Julianne Malveaux; Afterword by Marc Morial. Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky. p. 148. ISBN 978-0-8131-2491-9.  |accessdate= requires |url= (help)
  14. “Belford V. Lawson Oratorical Contest” (PDF). Awards and Achievements Criteria Handbook (Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity): 19–23. Archived from the original (PDF) on February 28, 2008. Retrieved January 5, 2008. 
  15. “Belford V. Lawson and Marjorie M. Lawson Residence”. Cultural Tourism DC. Retrieved January 5, 2008. [dead link]
  16. Williams, Paul Kelsey (2001). Images of America: The Neighborhoods of Logan, Scott, and Thomas Circles. Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing. p. 30. ISBN 978-0-7385-1404-8.  |accessdate= requires |url= (help)

External links

Preceded by
Rayford Logan
General President of Alpha Phi Alpha
Succeeded by
Antonio M. Smith

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About Harold L Carter

Bachelor of Science, Columbia University Masters degree, Ohio State University Undergraduate National Officer, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Eastern Asst Vice President, when a student at Columbia University Profile Photograph: Mom & Me, when I was a graduate student
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