James Lawson was recognized as Vanderbiltís 2005 Distinguished Alumnus at Loews Vanderbilt Hotel Jan. 18.
by Jim Patterson
More than four decades after a national furor over the expulsion of James Lawson from Vanderbilt University, he will return as a Distinguished University Professor for the 2006-07 academic year.
“This is for me an unexpected, even momentous, personal instant in my journey,” Lawson said.
The announcement was made Jan. 18 during a ceremony at Loews Vanderbilt Hotel, where Lawson was recognized as Vanderbilt’s 2005 Distinguished Alumnus.
Lawson’s expulsion from Vanderbilt Divinity School due to his involvement in the civil rights movement and the resulting resignations of faculty members in protest embroiled the campus and the Nashville community in a nationally reported controversy for months in the spring of 1960. Eventually, a compromise was forged to stop most of the resignations and allow Lawson to complete his degree in Nashville. Lawson instead chose to transfer to Boston University.
“No other alumnus has ever contributed so much to issues of national and international justice and peace, and the promotion of a non-violent 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.”
During his visiting professorship, Lawson will teach at least one course and give at least one public lecture each semester, participate in discussion groups with faculty, and work on his autobiography.
“It’s not often that either persons or institutions have an opportunity to redress a grievous wrong,” said Lucius Outlaw, associate provost for undergraduate education. “The expulsion of James Lawson was a significant moment in the history of Vanderbilt that set it back decades. Bringing him here isn’t about making apologies, because that happened many years ago. It’s about a new point in our relationship with him, and continuing the process of working our way past the perception of Vanderbilt as a white, segregated, arrogant institution.
“We’ve already made significant progress, especially in the last half- decade. We now have the opportunity, because of the character of James Lawson, to make history different than it was made at Vanderbilt in 1960.”
Lawson is pastor emeritus of Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles, where he served for 25 years before retiring in 1999.
As a young man, he studied the Gandhian movement in India before becoming an integral part of the civil rights movement. Lawson was dubbed by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as “the leading nonviolence theorist in the world.”
Lawson helped organize sit-ins by African American students, which led to the end of racial segregation of lunch counters in downtown Nashville. He was also active in civil rights struggles in Alabama and Mississippi.
“Permanently expelled from Vanderbilt University, James Lawson would have done fine and well,” said James Hudnut-Beumler, dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School. “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.”
Lawson returned to Vanderbilt Divinity School in 1970-71 during a sabbatical, and that school recognized him in 1996 with its first Distinguished Alumnus Award. The Association of Vanderbilt Black Alumni named Lawson the 2002 Walter R. Murray Distinguished Alumnus.