James Lawson Institute

Remembering Rev. James M. Lawson Jr.

Dear friends of the James Lawson Institute,

The grief occasioned by Rev. James Lawson’s death is, to so many, seismic.  In a world where violence is raging globally, we already feel the loss of his wisdom acutely. His voice was a primary force in the nonviolent movement and was an architect of its development in the United States.

You are now ancestor elder. We will not forget your courage. We will find our own.

Deeply appreciated for his mentoring, generous sharing of his time, and his courageous example, he will be missed by a multigenerational community of nonviolent social changemakers. His voice has been a catalyst for multiple and intersecting movements across the country and globe for the past 65 years. He realized that racial justice was also a fight for labor rights, gender, and sexual equality.

You dedicated your life to the pursuit of justice and human dignity for all

and laid a clear path for us to follow.

When Vanderbilt University launched the James Lawson Institute in 2022, Rev. Lawson said that the JLI would be a part of the “kind of social change—personal and social transformation” that would save the world. Standing at the podium, he proclaimed that, “we do no ordinary thing here. We are not engaged in something that we can see, but the possibilities are infinite.”

You made visionaries of us all, and saw the world that could be,

compelling us to neither ignore nor be limited by any present moment.

Rev. Lawson knew that the road to a justice loving society is a long one, requiring a lifetime of commitment, and hearts overflowing with transformative love. These, “if our behavior is true” will “sow the seeds for the consequences that will bear the fruits of righteousness and hope and peace. . . And make it possible for every boy, every girl, every man, woman, . . .to achieve the full status of their humanity. Nothing less than that is the fight that we have.” (Rev. Lawson, In Love and Solidarity)

 You showed us that when justice rolls down, and it will,

it will be catalyzed by a love moving across generations

and knowing no fear.

After decades of living into in his call to pursue justice, he was still committed to the path, and those of us who remain, must continue it. Rev. Lawson declared “we are to change the world.”

Your life speaks even now and asks:

How shall we change the world?

With whom will we travel?

Friends, join us as we live into Rev. Lawson’s legacy by continuing the necessary and good work to change the world.

Vanderbilt University is committed to furthering justice, equality and equity through its teaching, research and service. Few Vanderbilt community members embody these commitments better than former Divinity School student and university faculty member Rev. James Lawson, who has influenced our collective conscience for decades through his parish ministry and as a practitioner and teacher of faith-based nonviolent organizing.

With Rev. Lawson’s endorsement, Vanderbilt Divinity School and the College of Arts and Science seek to honor his legacy through the James Lawson Institute for the Research and Study of Nonviolent Movements at Vanderbilt University. Drawing on our rich local history, the institute will nurture evidence-based research and education rooted in nonviolent strategies; create and deepen partnerships in Nashville; and develop leaders equipped to contribute to a thriving society. A university investment will allow us to heed the abundant wisdom of Rev. Lawson while he is able to participate as the institute takes shape at Vanderbilt. We seek transformative philanthropic partnerships to bring the institute to its full potential.

The institute will honor the rich civil rights history in Nashville and nurture community partnerships that align with the institute’s mission and values. The role of religion in this work—from Lawson’s influences to the training of today’s pastoral and lay leaders—will serve as a common thread in the pursuit of the institute’s mission.

As an activist, intellectual, and minister, the life and work of Reverend James Lawson embodies all the values we honor at Vanderbilt Divinity School. Rev. Lawson’s lifelong commitment to nonviolence and social transformation models a life grounded in both faith and scholarship. The James Lawson Institute is invested in equipping and training generations of leaders who follow in Rev. Lawson’s legacy, including those who will carry his work forward by collaborative research and coalition building, based upon nonviolent strategies.

Yolanda Pierce, PhD
Dean of the Vanderbilt Divinity School and Cornelius Vanderbilt Chair of Religion & Literature

Through study of nonviolent strategies and leadership development, the institute will carry forward the work of Lawson and his collaborators in pursuit of three goals:

  • Advance research

    Given the unique charge to provide scholarship at the intersection of faith-based inquiry, data-driven research and community building, a research fund for the institute will expand on specialist scholarship while stimulating collaborative research and programming.

  • Promote conversations

    The institute will address a wide variety of ideas with the goal of fostering informed and civically engaged citizens in the 21st century and beyond. Toward this purpose, visiting scholars and thought leaders will advance dialogue and showcase new perspectives.

  • Train the next generation

    The institute will support student scholarships and post-doctoral positions while also providing compelling avenues for undergraduates to participate. Using Rev. Lawson’s teachings as a basis, those working within the institute will build a bridge between theory and practice, better preparing students to channel their passion into effective leadership with impact far beyond Vanderbilt.

    Partnership and programming opportunities will be announced at the launch event for the James Lawson Institute in 2022.

Sign up now to stay connected and learn more about the Lawson Institute.