Belford Vance Lawson Jr. was the first African American attorney to win a Supreme Court case. He was born on July 9, 1901, in Roanoke, Virginia. Lawson attended the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He played for the university football team and was only the school’s second-ever African American varsity player after George Henry Jewett II. In 1922, Lawson was initiated into the Epsilon chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha and earned his Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) in 1924.
Lawson’s career took him to Jackson College (now Jackson State University), where he taught social science and directed the Teachers’ Professional Department. While at Jackson College, Lawson also coached the school’s football team and served as its athletic director. He taught at Morris Brown College in Atlanta, 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 enrolled in Howard Law School. Two years later, in 1933, 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, Lawson founded the New Negro Alliance (NNA) in Washington, D.C., along with John A. Davis Sr and M. Franklin Thorne. Its primary purpose was to confront White-owned businesses in Black neighborhoods that refused to hire Blacks. Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work was the name of the NNA campaign against White business owners who refused to hire Blacks. White businesses 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. The case became a landmark for African Americans who were discriminated against in the hiring process.
Lawson was instrumental in getting Thurgood Marshall to file Murray v. Maryland in 1935, which challenged segregation at the University of Maryland School of Law. He was a member of the legal team that won the 1950 Southern Railway Company v. Henderson case. As a result of which, segregation in railroad dining cars was abolished. In 1973, Lawson was elected President of the YMCA of the USA.
Belford Lawson died in Washington, D.C., on February 23, 1985. He was 83 years old.