James Lawson returns to Vanderbilt for launch of institute carrying forward his quest for justice and equality

Portrait of the Reverend James Lawson by Simmie Knox
Portrait of the Rev. James Lawson by Simmie Knox

Vanderbilt University will launch the James Lawson Institute for the Research and Study of Nonviolent Movements during a livestreamed celebration featuring the Rev. James Lawson and keynote speaker John M. Seigenthaler on April 7.

>>Register for the livestream here.

The celebration will be among the highlights of a multiday campus visit by Lawson, a pioneering civil rights leader who helped organize nonviolent protests in Nashville and across the South during the 1960s. One of the university’s most revered alumni, Lawson has taught at Vanderbilt as a distinguished university professor.

“Six decades after the Rev. Lawson became a mentor to the Nashville Student Movement, he continues to be a compelling voice in struggles for justice and compassion—bringing people together during these deeply divided times,” Chancellor Daniel Diermeier said. “I am thrilled that he can join us in person for the launch of an institute that carries forward his lifelong commitment to ending systemic injustice.”

The institute is a cross-disciplinary collaboration between the Divinity School and the College of Arts and Science that will nurture evidence-based research and education rooted in nonviolent strategies. In addition, the institute will promote relevant conversations and train the next generation in nonviolent interventions.

“The Rev. 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 Divinity School and Distinguished Professor of Womanist Ethics and Society. “We invite the community to join us virtually for the institute launch as well as in the good work ahead.”

Phillis Sheppard, who serves as the institute’s director, is excited for Lawson and Seigenthaler, a senior partner at Finn Partners and former NBC News anchor and correspondent, to be together at the launch.

John Seigenthaler (submitted photo)

“John M. Seigenthaler is among Nashvillians with the strongest historical ties to the Rev. Lawson through John’s father, the late John L. Seigenthaler,” said Sheppard, associate professor of religion, psychology and culture and holder of the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Chair. “It will be wonderful to hear the younger Seigenthaler’s perspective during his keynote remarks on Rev. Lawson’s impact on the movement in Nashville and across the nation.”

The elder Seigenthaler, who served as special assistant to U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy during the 1960s, suffered a brutal beating by segregationists while attempting to aid Freedom Riders in Montgomery, Alabama. Throughout his life, Seigenthaler was a progressive voice in the city, the South and the nation.

The launch event will include performances by vocalist Karen Brown, who blends the soulful artistry of her church choir experience with the moving emotions of the great R&B legends; Divinity School musicians and spoken word artists; and Odessa Settles, a multigenre artist, especially Americana and folk. She is the daughter of former Fairfield Four member Walter Settles.

Lawson’s visit to Vanderbilt will include a lunch gathering with students who are engaged in institute programming and conversations with leaders of other cross-disciplinary initiatives on campus, including the Vanderbilt Project on Unity and American Democracy. Lawson also will meet with personnel from the James M. Lawson High School, scheduled to open in fall 2023, to explore the potential of partnerships between the institute and the Bellevue school. Dr. André Churchwell, vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion, will moderate a lunch conversation with a small group of Nashville community organizers as well as Divinity School alumni with ties to the institute.

Advance registration is required for the livestreamed celebration. For any additional questions, please email jameslawsoninstitute@vanderbilt.eduor visit the website.