Former U.S. Attorney John Fishwick. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.

Roanoke attorney John Fishwick was researching some local civil rights cases earlier this year when he kept running across the same name: Reuben Lawson.

It was not a name he knew, but a name he wanted to know more about. Lawson was an attorney in Roanoke in the 1950s and ’60s – a Black attorney when that was an unusual thing – and he figured in the lawsuits that integrated no fewer than six school districts in this part of the state. Technically, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1954 desegregated schools, but what the Supreme Court said was not what Virginia actually did. Virginia practiced “Massive Resistance” – the policy preached by U.S. Sen. Harry Byrd – and then, when that failed, resorted to legal chicanery through “pupil placement boards” that went through the motions of appearing to integrate but wound up sending white students to white schools and Black students to Black ones.

Reuben Lawson. Courtesy of John Fishwick.

Lawson went to court in Floyd County, in Grayson County, in Lynchburg, in Pulaski County, in Roanoke, in Roanoke County to force the school systems to integrate – and eventually won them all.

He also figured in a case of national importance. In 1961, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Colts played a preseason game in Roanoke’s Victory Stadium (at a time when there were no NFL teams between Washington and Dallas, so the league often played preseason games in the South). Virginia law at the time required that seating be segregated. The Roanoke NAACP – which Lawson represented – filed suit but it sat in court, unheard. With the game approaching, the NAACP tried another tack: It sent telegrams to all the Black players and asked them to boycott the game if Victory Stadium wasn’t integrated. That precipitated a crisis that went all the way to the NFL’s new commissioner, Pete Rozelle. (I wrote about this when I was with The Roanoke Times, so I happily send you there for more background.) The short version: Roanoke agreed to look the other way and ignore state law, and the NFL never again played before a segregated crowd.

In Fishwick’s view, Lawson is a “forgotten civil rights titan” who has been overlooked for two reasons. One, he worked in the shadow of another legal titan in the civil rights field, Oliver Hill, who grew up in Roanoke, practiced the bulk of his career in Richmond, and was one of the attorneys involved in that Brown v. Board of Education case. Two, Lawson died young – at age 43. (Fishwick isn’t sure why.)

Now he’s proposing a way to remedy that: The former U.S. attorney invited news media to his office Tuesday to make the case that the federal courthouse in Roanoke be named after Lawson. The catch, of course: The courthouse already has a name. It’s the Richard H. Poff Federal Building, named after a former 6th District congressman and member of the Virginia Supreme Court.

Fishwick’s argument, which he spells out in a letter sent to Virginia’s two U.S. senators and Reps. Ben Cline and Morgan Griffith, is that Poff failed the test of history: “While Mr. Poff should be commended for his service as a member of the armed forces, Congressman, and Justice of the Supreme Court of Virginia, it is an unfortunate historical fact that Mr. Poff signed the Declaration of Constitutional  Principles, known informally as the Southern Manifesto, in opposition to racial integration of public places, and voted against the Civil Rights Acts of 1957, 1960, 1964, and 1968, as well as the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Finally, as noted above, the Federal Building was completed in 1975. As we are nearing the 50th anniversary of the Federal Building, the time is ripe to change its namesake.”

Fishwick has produced a YouTube video on Lawson’s career – which includes archival footage from WSLS-TV that he found at the University of Virginia of Lawson filing some of his cases – and on Tuesday was joined by Edward Burton, pastor emeritus of Roanoke’s Sweet Union Baptist Church. Burton is “a young 95,” as Fishwick said in introducing him, and someone who knew Lawson. “He was a quiet and persistent man,” Burton remembers. “We have much of what we have today because of what he did.”

YouTube video
John Fishwick (left) with the Rev. Edward Burton. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.

Fishwick described Tuesday’s event as “launching a public campaign to change the name” of the courthouse.

Now for the politics of such a thing.

It is obviously not unprecedented to rename something because the person for whom it was originally named has fallen into historical disfavor. Within the past year, five Virginia community colleges were renamed for this reason.

Nor is it unprecedented to rename a federal courthouse. In July, the federal courthouse in Memphis was renamed from the Clifford Davis-Odell Horton Courthouse to simply the Odell Horton Courthouse. Davis was a segregationist and a member of the Ku Klux Klan; Horton was that district’s first Black federal judge.

Renaming a federal courthouse, though, does require an act of Congress – quite literally. Here’s where the politics become more complicated.

Poff, who passed away in 2011, is someone who is still well thought of by many Republicans, despite the votes Fishwick referenced – which do look worse with each passing year. Poff was one of three Republicans elected to Congress from Virginia as part of Dwight Eisenhower’s election in 1952, a watershed year that saw cracks start appearing in what had been “the Solid South” – a Solid South of conservative Democrats. At the time, Poff was considered something of a moderate, part of the “mountain-valley Republicans” who were right of center but still well left of where conservative Southern Democrats were at the time. There is no mountain-valley Republican better known than Linwood Holton, who in 1969 became the state’s first Republican governor since Virginia was known as the First Military District after the Civil War. Holton was Virginia’s first civil rights governor, dramatically declaring that “the era of defiance is behind us,” escorting his daughter to an integrated school and becoming the first Virginia governor to appoint a Black adviser (the late William Robertson of Roanoke). Holton once offered this explanation for Poff signing that Southern Manifesto: “He likely would have been defeated if he had not signed that document, but I expect he has regretted that signature through the years.” For what it’s worth, Poff went on to vote for the 24th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution – which banned the poll tax – and in 1971 voted for the Equal Employment Opportunity Act.

Historical memories are often selective but what Poff is better known for is being one of the primary authors of the 25th Amendment, which spells out ways to remove a president who is incapacitated.

While some may have forgotten or explained away Poff’s support of the Southern Manifesto, others have not. “It bothers me,” Burton said, that the courthouse is named for someone who “signed a manifesto that hurt my people and even members of my family.”

The political reality is that for the courthouse to be renamed, it would need to happen while Democrats control both chambers of Congress – which they may not come January, depending on how next month’s elections go. “Let’s get it done by the end of the year,” Fishwick said.

He said he hadn’t heard back from any member of Congress and I’d be surprised if Cline or Griffith backed stripping a Republican’s name from the building. I contacted their offices on Tuesday and didn’t hear back from either. I did hear back from Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, who sent this statement: “I look forward to reading John Fishwick’s letter regarding his suggestion for renaming the federal building in Roanoke for Reuben Lawson. Reuben Lawson was a courageous civil rights leader at a time when it was tough. He is worthy of recognition.”

Earlier this year Congress renamed a federal courthouse in Florida – or, perhaps more accurately, named it for the first time. It appears to have had no name before then, so you’d think a vote to name it after a former judge whom the Florida Bar called “a civil rights pioneer” would have been easy. It was not. Republicans opposed it because they objected to one of Joseph Hatchett’s rulings related to school prayer. The final House vote was 230-190, with just 10 Republicans voting in favor. Every Republican House member from Virginia voted against the measure. (The measure had been considered routine in the Senate, where sponsors included Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, but turned more political in the House; The New York Times wrote about the situation in more detail in this story). If Cline and Griffith couldn’t bring themselves to name an unnamed Florida courthouse after “a civil rights pioneer” because of one case they objected to, it’s hard to see how they’d vote to take a Republican’s name off their local courthouse.

Congress often moves in mysterious ways – sometimes acting quickly when it wants to, sometimes not acting at all. I’ll be curious to see if Fishwick’s proposal gets fast-tracked through what could be the final months of a Democratic Congress, or simply languishes. Nonetheless, he says he will do what Lawson did back in the day: He will persist. If nothing else, Fishwick has brought Lawson’s name out of history and put it into the present, where we can all marvel today at the work that it took to bring down American apartheid. 

* * *

Here’s a copy of Fishwick’s letter:

Dear Senators and Congressmen: 

My name is John P. Fishwick, Jr., and I am an attorney based in Roanoke, Virginia. From 2015 to 2017, I proudly served as the United States Attorney for the Western District of Virginia. In both that capacity and as an attorney in private practice, I have spent much of my career in the Richard H. Poff Federal Building1 here in Roanoke. I write to you today to respectfully propose legislation renaming the Federal Building to honor one of Roanoke’s undeservedly forgotten legal titans: civil rights attorney Reuben E. Lawson. 

1 The Federal Building is a general purpose facility administered by General Services Administration. It was completed in December 1975, and has seen many renovations over the years.

Mr. Lawson was an African American attorney who played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement in Virginia.2 A 1945 graduate of Howard University Law School, he practiced law in his home city of Roanoke from an office building he had built for himself. Mr. Lawson was also a prominent member of the community, at various times serving as the Master of Alleghany Lodge (affiliated with Prince Hall Masons), Vice-Chairman of the local African American Shriners group (Oasis of Roanoke), and Vice-President of the Roanoke Civic League. Mr. Lawson also gave public, educational talks at locations such as the Gainsboro Branch Library.  

Throughout his career, Mr. Lawson worked alongside a number of prominent civil rights attorneys of the time, including Oliver Hill. Mr. Lawson was also the lawyer for the Roanoke chapter of the NAACP, working directly with its executive board and advocating desegregation to the Roanoke City School Board. Though quiet and soft-spoken, Mr. Lawson worked tirelessly and passionately for social justice; he wholeheartedly believed in putting an end to segregation, and that the best way to achieve that goal would be through the court system. 

Indeed, Mr. Lawson filed and argued a number of significant cases before the judges of the Western District of Virginia to put an end to segregation, which unfortunately remained in place in the years following the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic decision of Brown v. Board of Education. He filed the first desegregation suit in Southwest Virginia, Walker v. Floyd County School Board, Civil Action No. 1012 (W.D. Va. 1960), delivering the suit to the Court by hand and marching the young African American plaintiffs into the federal courthouse. This case resulted in Judge Roby C. Thompson ordering that Floyd County admit 13 African American students into its high schools, which before then enrolled white students exclusively—despite the mandate of Brown some five years prior. Similar efforts soon followed in Pulaski County, Grayson County, Roanoke County, Roanoke City, and Lynchburg, among other places, leading to a number of judicial orders requiring these localities to enroll African American children in the same manner as their white peers. 

Mr. Lawson’s battle against the evil of segregation was not limited to the courtroom. For example, in 1961, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Colts were set to play an exhibition game at Roanoke’s Victory Stadium. Both teams featured African American star players, yet the stands at Victory Stadium remained segregated. Mr. Lawson took this issue to the Roanoke City Council, ably arguing that their oath to the Constitution of the United States required them to integrate the stands. Ultimately, Roanoke officials decided to ignore Virginia segregation laws and integrate the stadium, thanks to the efforts of Mr. Lawson and his contemporaries, including Reverend R.R. Wilkinson, who had organized a player boycott over the segregated stands. 

All Southwest Virginians owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Lawson for his important work in the 1950s and 1960s, and Mr. Lawson deserves be recognized for his contributions to ending Jim Crow. As a native and longtime resident of Roanoke, I can think of no more deserving honor than naming the Federal Building in Roanoke—the current home of the court in which Mr. Lawson valiantly fought segregationist policies—after him. Mr. Lawson was truly Roanoke’s own civil rights attorney, embodying not only the city, but the spirit of its diverse population. 

2 This letter summarizes Mr. Lawson’s life and admirable career and service to the civil rights movement, but I have also prepared a presentation which you may find informative, available at 

By contrast, the Federal Building’s current namesake, Richard H. Poff, has a more limited connection to Roanoke compared to Mr. Lawson. And while Mr. Poff should be commended for his service as a member of the armed forces, Congressman, and Justice of the Supreme Court of Virginia, it is an unfortunate historical fact that Mr. Poff signed the Declaration of Constitutional Principles, known informally as the Southern Manifesto, in opposition to racial integration of public places, and voted against the Civil Rights Acts of 1957, 1960, 1964, and 1968, as well as the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Finally, as noted above, the Federal Building was completed in 1975. As we are nearing the 50th anniversary of the Federal Building, the time is ripe to change its namesake. For all the reasons stated in this letter, Reuben E. Lawson is the perfect choice. 

Thank you for your attention to this matter. I have enclosed with this letter a draft bill that I hope you will sponsor. If you should have any questions or wish to discuss this matter further,  please do not hesitate to contact me. 

With kind regards, I remain 

Very truly yours, 

Fishwick & Associates PLC

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at