Vanderbilt‘s most famous expellee settles back on campus; Civil rights leader James Lawson teaching and writing in Nashville

No one would have blamed the Rev. James Lawson if he‘d treated his return to Vanderbilt University – nearly four decades after his controversial expulsion – as a feel-good victory lap. The 78-year-old civil rights leader and pastor could have accepted accolades while younger men and women continued the struggles he fought for so long.

Fat chance. Barely settled into his office in Buttrick Hall, he‘s busy challenging Christians on whether they‘ve become idolaters, challenging students about their political assumptions and quickly establishing himself as one of Vanderbilt‘s prime contemporary voices.

“I‘ve asked myself – me and my wife – why have we agreed to do this? Why are we here?” Lawson said. “Part of the reason is it gives me a chance to revisit Vanderbilt and see what Vanderbilt is about. … The second reason is that I see teaching and preaching as priorities in my work plan and goals, so I see teaching some people at Vanderbilt about how we can help change ourselves in the world, our city, our nation, as an important ingredient.”

Lawson‘s life – including his student years at Vanderbilt – is marked by an abiding faith in the principles of Christianity and non-violence, and a willingness to pay the price for those beliefs. He served 13 months of a three-year prison sentence for refusing the draft during the Korean War, and was expelled from Vanderbilt in 1960 because of his work in the civil rights movement in Nashville.

After a national press uproar and threats of mass faculty resignations, a compromise allowed Lawson to complete his graduate studies at Vanderbilt. He opted instead to complete his degree at Boston University.

Vanderbilt and Lawson reconciled in various ways over the years, and he returned to Vanderbilt Divinity School during a sabbatical in 1970-71. But university officials still felt like the relationship was incomplete until naming Lawson the laand announcing his return as Distinguished University Professor for the 2006-07 academic year.

“Permanently expelled from Vanderbilt University, James Lawson would have done fine and well,” said James Hudnut-Beumler, dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School, during the January dinner announcing his return. “But Vanderbilt could not be fine or well without confronting its troubled soul. … James Lawson has progressively helped this university find its conscience – and dare I say – its soul.”

This semester, Lawson is dealing with the mundane and profound aspects of resettling in Nashville. He‘s trying to avoid getting tickets while he arranges for his Vanderbilt parking permit, and mapping out a walking route for his daily exercise. He‘s teaching a popular class in non-violent struggles and social movements and popping up at events on campus. He‘s an adviser for labor protesters in Los Angeles who recently shut down Century Boulevard near the Los Angeles International Airport to bring attention to low wages paid to immigrant workers at area hotels.

Most recently, he filmed a series of interviews to be aired on Nashville‘s public television station, WNPT, during the Vanderbilt-sponsored re-airing of Eyes on the Prize in October. Lawson was interviewed for the original documentary on the civil rights movement, and is delighted that another generation is getting to see it.

“It gives a picture of the scope of the (civil rights) movement,” Lawson said. “Dr. (Martin Luther) King and the movement in the black South, especially in the ‘50s and ‘60s, represents the zenith of the struggle of the American people to become the kind of people that … this idealist wants us to become.”

A lifelong Christian and pastor emeritus of the Holston United Methodist Church in Los Angeles, Lawson holds Christianity to high standards, and his blistering criticism is hard for some to accept. He‘s preparing for a spring course with the working title of Jesus Against Christianity (the title is appropriated from a book by Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer) that will argue that much religion in the United States is really idolatry.

“I would like to engage in a no-bars-held conversation about authentic religion,” he said. “I am persuaded that very often the Bible is an idol in American religion, rather than a kind of conversation between God and our human scene.”

Vanderbilt archiving experts are cataloging Lawson‘s papers, and he plans to do some writing – perhaps an autobiography – based on the papers.

Lawson is aware that the exercise of contemplating his legacy at an institution that once tied itself into knots over whether or not he was welcome is somewhat strange.

“Dorothy (his wife) and I experienced a great deal of excitement, a great deal of love and access at Vanderbilt, and so I could never deny the two years of experience here,” he said. “Even the expulsion taught me because obviously at the heart of the gospel of Jesus is the notion that if you stay in obedience and faithfulness to God‘s kingdom on earth, you get battered from it.

“It‘s not an easy course. You run into situations where you get expelled from a university.”

Media contact: Jim Patterson, (615) 322-NEWS

Explore Story Topics