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Once-expelled civil rights leader receives honors at Vanderbilt

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A UMNS photo by Daniel Dubois,
courtesy of Vanderbilt University

The Rev. James Lawson says his time at Vanderbilt University Divinity School had a major impact on his theological education.
Jan. 20, 2006

By Ciona Rouse*

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS) — Decades following his expulsion from Vanderbilt University as a student, civil rights pioneer James Lawson will return as a distinguished visiting professor for the school’s 2006-07 academic year.

While studying at the university, Lawson helped organize nonviolent sit-ins at Nashville’s segregated lunch counters. Vanderbilt’s Board of Trust voted in 1960 to expel him for his role. The board reversed its decision shortly afterward, but Lawson had already enrolled elsewhere.

The public announcement of Lawson’s return to the campus came Jan. 18 during the Vanderbilt Alumni Association’s banquet honoring the United Methodist pastor as the university’s 2005 Distinguished Alumnus, an award established in 1996 to recognize the global achievement and service of alumni.

“No other alumnus has ever contributed so much to issues of national and international justice and peace, and the promotion of a nonviolent world view,” said Chancellor Gordon Gee. “James Lawson ? and the faculty and students who supported him in 1960 ? knew Vanderbilt’s true mission even before Vanderbilt understood it entirely.”

After his expulsion from Vanderbilt, Lawson continued his work for justice, serving as director of nonviolent education for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, as pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Memphis and as chairman of the strategy committee for the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike in 1968, during which the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

A student of Mohandas Gandhi’s teachings after spending time in India during his youth, Lawson has continued to advocate against violence and war and for equity and justice worldwide. Today he is pastor emeritus of Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles.

At the dinner, Lawson said he holds no resentment toward Vanderbilt’s board for its actions in 1960.

“I do count Vanderbilt School of Theology as having a major impact on my theological education,” he said. “They were two good years for Dorothy and I at Vanderbilt. I will always appreciate the spirit and quality there.”

In his acceptance of the 2005 Distinguished Alumnus Award, Lawson recalled many instances when he and his wife, Dorothy, and other African-American friends unwittingly pushed the boundaries of segregation at the university and in the city without receiving negative backlash.

Looking ahead, he said that “huge tasks” remain, including addressing the “epidemic of domestic violence and abuse” in the United States.

“We in the U.S. can be healed of the spiritual consequences of racism, sexism, violence and greed ... when we freely and willingly join God in perfecting our imperfect world,” he said.

“We must dream with Isaiah a new heavens, as it is stated in the 65th chapter, and a new earth. It can be. It is yet to be.”

Lawson plans to teach at least one course each semester of the 2006-07 year.

“I certainly hope that every one of our students who encounters Dr. Lawson turns out as well and is as faithful in the ministry,” said the Rev. James Hudnut-Beumler, dean of the Vanderbilt Divinity School, after the dinner.

Hudnut-Beumler said he celebrates Lawson’s return as an opportunity for Lawson to “share with the next generation what it means to be a minister of the gospel all the way down to the most existential realities they encounter.”

Lawson’s expulsion caused “a transformative crisis of conscience for Vanderbilt’s faculty,” many of whom resigned in protest of Lawson’s expulsion, the dean noted. Though the board reversed its decision shortly after the resignations, Lawson chose to continue his education at Boston University instead.

“Permanently expelled from Vanderbilt, James Lawson would have done fine and well. But Vanderbilt could not be fine or well without confronting its troubled soul,” said Hudnut-Beumler.

Past recipients of the Distinguished Alumnus Award include banker Muhammad Yunus, who created a model loan program for impoverished areas of the world; Dr. Norman Shumway, adult heart transplant pioneer; and Dr. Mildred Stahlman, creator of the first modern neonatal intensive care unit.

*Rouse is a freelance writer in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or

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