The Rev. James Lawson, civil rights icon and Vanderbilt University Distinguished Professor, emeritus, has received the prestigious NAACP Chairman’s Award, which recognizes individuals who demonstrate exemplary public service and use their distinct platforms to create agents of change. Past recipients of the award include then-Sen. Barack Obama; Reps. John Lewis and Maxine Waters; former Surgeon General Regina Benjamin; actors Tyler Perry, Ruby Dee and Danny Glover; and musicians The Neville Brothers and Bono.
The NAACP recognized Lawson during its 2021 Image Awards, which aired on BET on Saturday, March 27. Lawson was honored for his work as a social change advocate and his critical contributions to the civil rights movement, specifically his integral role in the nonviolent protests in the U.S. South in the 1960s.
“Last summer we saw millions around the world take to the streets in the most powerful protests for racial justice and civil rights in a generation. These protests were inspired by the work of civil rights movement leaders like Rev. James Lawson,” said NAACP Chairman Leon W. Russell. “In this pivotal moment for Black history, there is no better time to recognize Rev. Lawson’s tremendous contributions to American history and to live up to his example.”
Lawson’s mark on the Vanderbilt community is profound. After coming to Vanderbilt Divinity School as a transfer student in 1958, he helped organize sit-ins to desegregate lunch counters in downtown Nashville. Lawson’s participation in the sit-ins led to his expulsion from Vanderbilt in 1960 following a vote by the executive committee of the university’s Board of Trust—a move that generated national headlines and prompted some faculty members to resign in protest. Eventually, Vanderbilt and Lawson reconciled, and in 1996 he received the Vanderbilt Divinity School’s first Distinguished Alumni/ae Award.
“Reverend Lawson was and remains the spiritual and intellectual heartbeat of nonviolent social changes that demand radical responses—that is, responses that go to the root of the problems we face and demand justice and transformation,” said Emilie Townes, dean of the Vanderbilt Divinity School and distinguished professor of womanist ethics and society. “He is an enduring witness to a God of justice, mercy and love. His genius lies in his ability to bring others along with him so that generations after his can take up this sacred work.”
Lawson returned to Vanderbilt as a Distinguished University Professor, teaching from 2006 to 2009. In 2007, the James M. Lawson Jr. Chair at Vanderbilt was established in his honor. He also donated a significant portion of his papers to the Jean and Alexander Heard Libraries’ Special Collections in 2013. A scholarship for undergraduate students at Vanderbilt was named in his honor in 2018.
“James Lawson’s contribution to the civil rights movement, in general, and the fight for racial justice at Vanderbilt Divinity School, in particular, marks a time in our historical memory so rich with elements of courage, determination, resilience and resistance that it is imperative to regard him as a pioneer of public theology and racial justice,” said Teresa Smallwood, associate director of the Public Theology and Racial Justice Collaborative at Vanderbilt Divinity School.