Two African girls in their twenties, nearly in tears, approach a woman after her keynote speech at a local university. “We learned how to speak English watching you,” one of the girls tells the woman as she begins to cry. “We come from a French-speaking country, and we didn’t have a lot of guidance when we got here, so we would watch you on TV every day and listen.” The woman, touched by such an honest admission, begins to tear up too.
This heartfelt interaction testifies to just a fraction of Melanie Lawson’s influence. The native Houstonian, award-winning journalist, and ABC-13 news anchor is a Houston icon. She has been the face and voice of Houston media for the past 40 years, impacting multiple generations of Houstonians along the way. “It has always been important to me to not only cover our stories but also to speak for people who don’t have the platform to speak for themselves,” she said.
Over her career, Lawson has covered a wide range of crucial topics and interviewed dozens of notable political and cultural figures, including U.S. presidents, Secretaries of State, the Dalai Lama, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Maya Angelou, actress Betty White, and even Houston superstar Beyoncé. She is an avid art collector and the co-anchor of Live at 5 and Channel 13’s Eyewitness News.
We spoke with Lawson about growing up in Third Ward, the ups and downs during her 40-year career, her role as an influential voice in the community, and her passion for good storytelling.
Lawson was raised in the early 1970s and was part of the generation that integrated schools like Poe Elementary and Lanier Middle School. She has witnessed Houston’s transformation from a city of separate and isolated Black, white, and Latino racial groups to a mostly mixed multicultural nexus. From her childhood homes on Wheeler Avenue, Rosedale Street, and South MacGregor Way to the first house she bought on North MacGregor Way, Lawson is a tried and true Third Wardian. She grew up in the care of her entire community, a kindred type of nurturing that instilled in her a belief that anything is possible. “If I ever got in trouble in school, that walk home was incredibly long because every adult between school and home had to come out and fuss at me. There was a real comfort in that, and as long as you lived in a neighborhood where you saw great accomplishments, you believed that was something you could do, too.”
At a young age, she developed a knack for being curious, or what she calls “being nosy,” and identified that as one of the core characteristics of good journalism. Her passion came naturally as she spent most of her childhood reading while other children ran around on the playground. Her early interest in radio led to her writing a column in the Forward Times, which paved the way for a successful on-air career. In 1982, after studying Law and Journalism at Columbia University and practicing First Amendment law on Wall Street for three years, Lawson accepted an invitation from a mentor to return to Houston and work full-time as a reporter at Channel 13 Eyewitness News. She’s been a leading figure on the Houston media scene ever since.
Lawson has also helped elevate some of the nation’s most significant and historical figures. Throughout her esteemed career, she has interviewed numerous civil rights activists like Harry Belafonte, Jesse Jackson, and John Lewis. She was central in contextualizing the importance of Black sororities and Historically Black Colleges and Universities during Kamala Harris’ Vice Presidential campaign. And she helped boost American film director Spike Lee’s career by giving him one of his earliest interviews. Lawson was also one of the first journalists to interview American producer/playwright/director Tyler Perry, and she introduced Houston audiences to megachurch pastor Joel Osteen on the cusp of his Lakewood expansion in 2005.
Despite her star-studded roster of interviewees, she said her most transformative conversations have been with ordinary people, like local activists, school principals, first responders, church congregation members, and neighbors. “Sometimes it’s not necessarily the famous people. It’s somebody very modest, humble and a part of the fabric of the city,” she said.
After all this time, Lawson remains motivated by the need to elevate the voices of Houston’s and the country’s unspoken heroes. And, even after 40 years in the industry, she has no plans to stop any time soon. “It was always crucial for me to cover my community and focus on the stories other people in the newsroom wouldn’t even think about. That has been a real driving force for me.”
With all the extraordinary technological, social, and political shifts in the industry and the world, Lawson says she’s sticking to the basics: reading, writing, and being nosy.