James Lawson to receive lifetime achievement award from Vanderbilt Black Alumni

October 23, 2002

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – James M. Lawson, a Vanderbilt University Divinity School alumnus who led the sit-ins at Nashville’s segregated lunch counters and had a profound effect on Vanderbilt’s national identity, is the recipient of the 2002 Walter R. Murray Jr. Distinguished Alumnus Award.

The Association of Vanderbilt Black Alumni (AVBA) will bestow the honor on Lawson Oct. 25 during this year’s Vanderbilt Reunion celebration. The award, established in honor of a 1970 Vanderbilt graduate, recognizes lifetime achievements in personal, professional and community arenas.

“The AVBA has never produced an alumnus with more significant connections to the American civil rights movement,” said Dr. David M. Chatman, a 1985 graduate of the College of Arts and Science and president of the AVBA. “After reading David Halberstam’s The Children, I believe that we may have previously underestimated his vital contributions, including the training of pioneers of the civil rights movement. I am honored to help recognize his outstanding achievements.”

Lawson, who was once described by Martin Luther King Jr. as “the leading nonviolence theorist in the world,” enrolled in Vanderbilt Divinity School in 1958 as a transfer student from the Oberlin School of Theology. Lawson had been encouraged by King to come to the South to help lead the struggle for justice, and he began training black students for the sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in downtown Nashville. He became the director of nonviolent education for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

In the spring of 1960, Lawson was asked by then-Chancellor Harvie Branscomb and the Board of Trust to resign for repeatedly breaking the laws against civil disobedience. When Lawson refused, he was immediately expelled.

The controversial expulsion, which prompted many Vanderbilt professors to submit their resignations, became known as “the Lawson affair.” A compromise was later worked out whereby Lawson was permitted to pursue his graduate studies at Vanderbilt, but he chose to complete his degree at Boston University. He returned to Vanderbilt Divinity School on a sabbatical during 1970 and ’71.

Lawson, a Methodist minister, remained active in the civil rights movement through the years. He chaired the strategy committee for the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike during which King was assassinated. In 1974 Lawson became pastor of Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles, where he served until retirement in 1999. Lawson is a former national chairman of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the oldest pacifist organization in the United States. He also has been an active member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, serving as president for 14 years. In 1996 Lawson received the Vanderbilt Divinity School’s first Distinguished Alumnus Award.

Past recipients of the Walter R. Murray Jr. Distinguished Alumnus Award include Dr. Levi Watkins, the first African American to graduate from Vanderbilt Medical School; Walter Washington, former president of Alcorn State University; Brig. Gen. Kenneth Jordan, who served as managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board; former Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell; and Sheryll Cashin, who served in the Clinton White House and is a member of the Vanderbilt Board of Trust.

The award will be presented to Lawson at approximately 9 p.m. Oct. 25 at the AVBA Reunion dinner at Stockyard Restaurant.

For more information about Vanderbilt, please visit the News Service homepage at www.vanderbilt.edu/News.

Contact: Ann Marie Owens, 615-322-NEWS, annmarie.owens@vanderbilt.edu

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