Video: Zeppos, Lawson discuss how Nashville and Vanderbilt can work together

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“A university that is aloof from its campus and the community cannot thrive and survive,” Interim Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos said about the importance of “town-gown” relationships and the work of the university’s new Center for Nashville Studies.

While Zeppos talked about future Vanderbilt efforts that will impact Nashville on Tuesday, Dec. 4, at The Commons, the evening’s other speaker – the Rev. James Lawson, Distinguished University Professor at Vanderbilt – reflected on his past as a civil rights leader and the role and responsibility universities have had and must continue to have in creating positive change in their local communities and beyond.

Zeppos said The Commons – the first-year student community slated to open here in fall 2008 – will be a “launching pad where students will not only live and learn at Vanderbilt, but learn to be a part of the Nashville community.”

He also said the Center for Nashville Studies first project – one that will capture the stories of the individuals and institutions that played a role in Nashville’s contributions to the Civil Rights Movement – will serve Nashville and have a broader impact because “the need to reflect on non-violence never goes away.”

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. dubbed the work of Nashville’s civil rights leaders a “model movement,” according to Lawson, who also said that Nashville reinvented the Civil Rights Movement and became a model for cities like Memphis, Dallas, Albany, Ga., and Birmingham.

“The quality and wealth of clergy and the students we were able to recruit here – combined with the non-violence training we were able to do here – showed the efficacy of an untapped power that could cause change. We had to rethink who we are as a people in this city,” Lawson said.

Lawson’s civil rights work led to his expulsion from Vanderbilt’s Divinity School in 1960; however, he said he decided to return to become a member of the university’s faculty in 2006 because “there was a clear commitment from the chancellor’s office and the provost’s office that Vanderbilt not be a degree factory, but a place to create leaders of the new century.”

Lawson said he hopes that the Center for Nashville Studies’ civil rights project will spread the meaning of the movements of the 1950s and 1960s to the city and beyond.

“We hope this project will help the university and the community take pride in being a different city in 2007, but recognize both to our shame and in our commitment that we have come a long distance but the journey ahead is even longer,” Lawson said.

“It’s a journey we can make if we can commit ourselves to the best of the past and at the same time expect to make today and the future better still.”

For more information about the Vanderbilt Center for Nashville Studies, visit

Contact: Princine Lewis, (615) 322-NEWS