By Margaret Mulvihill
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of Washington Women in Public Relations
A Public Relations Trailblazer
Marjorie McKenzie Lawson was an exceptional Woman of Washington. Born in 1912, she graduated from college as a Social Worker, before studying law at both Terrell and Columbia Universities. After her marriage to Belford V. Lawson, Jr., she joined his law practice at 2001 Eleventh Street, NW. For over six decades, she was a fixture on the District of Columbia political scene, and was equally well-known on Martha’s Vineyard where she kept a house.
Inside a High-Level Political Campaign
The political public relations part of her story began at the 1956 National Convention of the Democratic Party in Chicago. Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts was defeated in his Vice Presidential bid to run with former Governor Adlai Stevenson of Illinois. The young senator was introduced to Belford and Marjorie, and from then until his death, Kennedy relied heavily on the Lawson law firm to smooth his way within the leadership of the black electorate.
Interesting insights into the inner workings of a high-level campaign are provided in some of Marjorie’s private papers. In one memo to JFK, dated 27 December 1958, her superior public relations skill shines through. She outlined the red-carpet treatment given to a major donor, which included being met at the airport and brought to the Senators DC office to chat with Ted.
The donor, a young Mrs. Vel Phillips, was taken to lunch, and introduced to “people we thought she should know and spared the introductions that would not be helpful”. She went on to say that she was currently working on the delegate situation for the 1960 convention.
Getting Your Delegates in a Row
Working through Marjorie’s political public relations papers, it’s clear that she selectively targeted people like Dr. A. G. Gaston, Sr., of Birmingham, Alabama and Judge Mercer Mance of Indianapolis, Indiana, intuiting that they would be delegates to the convention.
Kennedy was, of course, selected as the Democratic nominee at the 1960 Democratic National Convention, held in Los Angeles, CA.
Folding Civil Rights into Kennedy’s Campaign
In another memo to JFK, Marjorie suggested “a procedure for a working relationship between the Civil Rights program” and Kennedy’s campaign. As a diligent practitioner of political public relations, no issue was too minute for her to raise with the future President. She pointed out his need to focus more attention on the integration of Civil Rights issues and the Negro leadership into his campaign. With this in mind, she proposed a method and asked for his schedule, to allow her to join him among groups and in cities where she was well known. She reminded him that in some instances, it would be more helpful for Belford to join him, as together, they had excellent contacts in most cities across the country.
Keeping the Line Open
In brilliant public relations style, Marjorie told the future President to include Negroes in any relevant public appearance. She reminded him that while her firm would work at the staff level when it came to civil rights moves proposed by him, she retained the right to speak to him directly if she disagreed with the consensus.
An exceptionally savvy practitioner of political public relations, Marjorie formally joined the Presidential campaign in 1960 as a civil rights adviser.
JFK depended on the Lawsons for their advice and strategy on winning the black vote.
The Lawsons delivered.