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NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Rev. James Lawson, a pivotal figure in the civil rights movement and Vanderbilt history, has been named Vanderbilt’s 2005 Distinguished Alumnus.
The Vanderbilt Alumni Association will bestow the honor on Lawson Jan. 18 while he is on campus to deliver the keynote address for the Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Series. The award was established in 1996 to recognize alumni who have furthered Vanderbilt’s mission globally through outstanding achievement and service.
Lawson said he, his two sons and wife Dorothy “were astonished” and “extremely appreciative” of the award. He was expelled from Vanderbilt in 1960 because of his participation in civil rights protests in Nashville, but has since reconciled with the university.
“My two years at Vanderbilt Divinity School shaped my life spiritually and intellectually in ways that I have yet to properly assess,” Lawson said. “We firmly believe in the mission and work of Vanderbilt University, and this 2005 award solidifies my sense of debt to Vanderbilt.”
Lawson’s impact on Vanderbilt is incalculable, said Sharon Munger, president of the VU Alumni Association.
“Whether it is as a pioneer in America’s Civil Rights Movement, a devoted pastor in service to the community, or as a teacher mentoring nonviolent leadership in the next generation, the Rev. Lawson has had a transforming and profoundly positive impact on the citizens of the world in general and of Vanderbilt in particular,” Munger said.
Chancellor Gordon Gee called Lawson “a towering figure in the history of both the civil rights movement and Vanderbilt.”
“His words and actions changed history, and continue to resonate,” Gee said. “It is an honor to recognize him with this award.”
Lawson was a student at the Oberlin Graduate School of Theology in the spring of 1957 when he met the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Lawson had just returned from India, where he had been a Methodist missionary, coaching and continuing his study of the Gandhian movement. King, who called Lawson “the leading nonviolence theorist in the world,” urged him to head south immediately to work in the struggle for civil rights.
In November Lawson became the southern secretary for the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the oldest pacifist organization in the nation. FOR had encouraged him to move to Nashville and continue his studies at Vanderbilt because the organization had more members in Nashville than other Southern cities. Through this position, he organized the historic sit-ins by black students that eventually ended the racial segregation of lunch counters in downtown Nashville.
Lawson applied as a transfer student from Oberlin to Vanderbilt Divinity School in early 1958 and was accepted. He began his studies at Vanderbilt in the fall of 1958.
In the spring of 1960 during the sit-in campaign designed to integrate Nashville lunch counters in department and drug stores, the executive committee of the Vanderbilt Board of Trust voted to expel Lawson from the University for his role in the movement. The expulsion generated national headlines and prompted members of the Vanderbilt faculty to resign in protest during one of the most turbulent periods in Vanderbilt history.
After weeks of tense negotiations, a compromise was finally worked out to allow Lawson to complete his degree from Vanderbilt, but he chose instead to transfer to Boston University. After his expulsion from Vanderbilt, Lawson was named director of nonviolent education for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. From 1962 to 1974, he was pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Memphis. He continued to work in the movement, directing a series of action campaigns opposing police brutality and discrimination in school, employment and public accommodation. This included serving as chairman of the strategy committee for the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike in 1968, during which King was assassinated.
Lawson was also very involved in other civil rights struggles known as the Birmingham Campaign of 1963 and the Mississippi Summer of 1964. Lawson returned to Vanderbilt Divinity School on a sabbatical during 1970 and 1971.
Lawson is pastor emeritus of Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles, where he served for 25 years before retiring in 1999. He is president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Los Angeles and continues to serve community and interfaith coalitions for social justice and peace. He is president of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, an interfaith group that works to lift employees out of poverty. He also serves on the boards of the ACLU of Southern California and the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Rights. He has worked with the Urban League, NAACP, Planned Parenthood and the Religious Leaders for a More Just and Compassionate Drug Policy. Lawson received the Vanderbilt Divinity School’s first Distinguished Alumnus Award in 1996 and was named the 2002 Walter R. Murray Distinguished Alumnus by the Association of Vanderbilt Black Alumni.
Previous recipients of the Vanderbilt Distinguished Alumnus/Alumna Award are: Muhammad Yunus, Dr. Norman E. Shumway, Cal Turner Jr., Delbert Mann, Dr. Antonio Grotto, Dr. Thomas F. Frist Jr. and Dr. Mildred T. Stahlman.
Lawson’s keynote address on Jan. 17 for the Martin Luther King Commemorative Series is titled “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” The talk, which is free and open to the public, will be at 7 p.m. in Benton Chapel.
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Media contact: Ann Marie Deer Owens, (615) 322-NEWS