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James Lawson Institute Launch

Today, in America and around the globe, we are faced with what Rev. James M. Lawson Jr. has called the continuing “love affair with violence” and the horrors wrought by systemic injustice. We are faced with the ethical question: How shall we respond in effective and sustaining ways? Vanderbilt University will launch the James Lawson Institute for the Research and Study of Nonviolent Movements on April 7, 2022, at 5 p.m. at the Student Life Center, 310 25th Ave. S., Nashville, TN 37240.

A collaboration between Vanderbilt Divinity School and the College of Arts and Science is honoring Rev. James Lawson’s legacy and the rich human rights history in Nashville. With his endorsement, we have established the James Lawson Institute for the Research and Study of Nonviolent Movements. The Institute will collaborate with:

  • community organizers, activists, educators, religious leaders, public theologians, researchers and legal experts—our partners in the struggle for social transformation work—to work toward realizing the dream of a more “compassionate, ethical and just world”
  • colleagues across Vanderbilt University and other institutions of higher education to create an international research hub
  • practitioners to create opportunities for the next generation to learn to advance societal change rooted in strategic nonviolent strategies.

Emilie Townes, dean of the Vanderbilt Divinity School and Distinguished Professor of Womanist Ethics and Society, explains why we focus on Rev. Lawson’s place in this work. “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.” The institute will carry forward the work of Rev. Lawson and his collaborators in pursuit of three goals: to advance research, promote conversations and train the next generation in nonviolent interventions. Rev. Lawson reminds us that “Violence has no practical results toward building a strength in community or solving the problems of human prejudice bias and injustice.” We invite you to the launch and we invite you join us in the good work ahead.

LAUNCH EVENTS: Thursday, April 7, 2022

12:30–1:45 p.m.       

“In the Round” A Conversation with Rev. James M. Lawson Jr. 

Rev. Lawson, along with a panel of nonviolent practitioners and scholars, will engage local organizers, religious leaders and students around the work of nonviolent strategic direct action for responding to local and global social justice issues.

James M. Lawson Jr.

Described by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as “the leading nonviolence theorist in the world,” Lawson first studied the Gandhian movement as a young missionary in India. 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 by 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. A compromise was worked out to allow him to complete his degree, but he chose instead to transfer to Boston University. Eventually, Vanderbilt and Lawson reconciled, and in 1996 he received the Vanderbilt Divinity School’s first Distinguished Alumni/ae Award. The Vanderbilt University Alumni Association also recognized him as a Distinguished Alumnus in 2005. Lawson returned to campus as a Distinguished University Professor, teaching from 2006 to 2009, and 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.

André L. Churchwell

Dr. André L. Churchwell is the vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion and chief diversity officer for Vanderbilt University. He is the inaugural Levi Watkins, Jr., M.D. Chair, chief diversity officer for Vanderbilt University Medical Center and senior associate dean for diversity affairs in the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. Churchwell is a professor of medicine (cardiology), professor of radiology and radiological sciences and professor of biomedical engineering.

Churchwell graduated from the Vanderbilt School of Engineering magna cum laude in 1975. He won the Biomedical Engineering Student Program Award that same year. He received his medical degree from Harvard Medical School in 1979 and later completed his internship, residency and cardiology fellowship at Emory University School of Medicine and affiliated hospitals in Atlanta. In addition, he was the first African American chief medical resident at Grady Memorial Hospital (1984–85).

He serves on many medical school committees, including the Admission and Promotion committees. In 2011, he was named dean of diversity for undergraduate medical education to add to his current role in the dean’s office. Churchwell and his team, building on the work of prior associate deans for diversity, have maintained that 20 percent to 25 percent of the entering Vanderbilt University Medical School class is of an underrepresented in medicine (URM) background. This effort has allowed us to sustain a diverse and rich learning environment where each student benefits from the experiences of students different from them by race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, geographic site of origin, etc.

Mary E. King    

Dr. Mary Elizabeth King, director and professor of peace and conflict studies at the UN-affiliated University for Peace (main campus Costa Rica), is also Distinguished Rothermere American Institute Fellow at the University of Oxford, Britain. Political scientist and author of a number of recognized books on civil resistance, her latest is Gandhian Nonviolent Struggle and Untouchability in South India: The 1924–25 Vykom Satyagraha and the Mechanisms of Change, Oxford University Press, 2015.

Her academic specialty in the study of nonviolent civil resistance movements dates to her decision at age 22 to go to work for the U.S. civil rights movement, first in Atlanta and then Mississippi, on the staff of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC—pronounced “snick”) in the 1960s. At age 23, she spent Christmas in Atlanta’s city jail “Big Rock.” She is co-author of the historical document “Sex and Caste,” published by Liberation magazine in April 1966, which resulted from conversations among women SNCC organizers and is now considered a catalyst for the women’s liberation movement of what would become called second-wave feminism. She serves on the board of the Albert Einstein Institution, Boston. In 2011, she received the James M. Lawson Award for Nonviolent Achievement.

Sekou Franklin

Dr. Sekou Franklin is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Middle Tennessee State University. He is the author of After the Rebellion: Black Youth, Social Movement Activism, and the Post-Civil Rights Generation (NYU Press, 2014) and edited the State of Blacks in Middle Tennessee. He has a forthcoming book (co-authored with Ray Block) called, Losing Power: African Americans and Racial Polarization in Tennessee Politics (University of Georga Press).

Franklin has also worked closely with numerous groups, including Urban EpiCenter, Tennessee Citizen Action, Tennessee Alliance for Progress, Ad Hoc Committee for Equity, TennCare Saves Lives Coalition, Nashville Black Covenant Coalition, Justice for Jefferson Street Coalition, Green-Collar Jobs Task Force of Nashville-Davidson County, Nashville Peace and Justice Center’s Leadership Institute, Rev. James Lawson’s Nonviolent Resistance and Social Justice Committee/Saturday Morning Group, and Tennessee State Conference of NAACP. In addition, he was appointed to the Tennessee Advisory Committee for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 2016 and serves on the coordinating committee of Democracy Nashville-Democratic Communities. He resides in North Nashville with his family.

Justin Bautista-Jones 

Justin Jones is an activist, graduate student and community organizer in Nashville. He came to Fisk University in 2013, where he received the John R. Lewis Scholarship for Social Activism. Inspired by its legacy of the student-led movement for civil rights, Jones became involved on campus and in community groups and spent the past nine years in Tennessee organizing campaigns for the expansion of health care in Tennessee, the repeal of restrictive state voter ID laws, the removal of Confederate monuments and community accountability in cases of police brutality against unarmed Black victims.

Jones served on the Board of Directors of the Tennessee Healthcare Campaign and has led actions at the Tennessee legislature and across the South for the expansion of Medicaid. In 2015, he helped to coordinate a federal lawsuit against the State of Tennessee for its restrictive voter ID laws that targeted students. During the racial justice uprisings in the summer of 2020, he served as a strategist and direct-action organizer for the 62-day sit-in outside the Tennessee Capitol calling on the governor to advance policies of racial justice. Jones is completing a master of theological studies degree at Vanderbilt University Divinity School.

Jackie Sims

Sims has served as a community organizer for more than 11 years in Nashville. She was introduced to this work upon the conclusion of a yearlong training with Rev. James Lawson, who helped her fully appreciate the philosophy of non violent social resistance and see this work through spiritual eyes. For Sims, this created an additional level of commitment to the work. Sims has worked in the community at the nonprofit level in re-entry, homelessness and neighborhood organizing. She has worked on three collaborative projects as a grassroots organizer that collectively spanned several years: the Homeless Power Project, Ban the Box and most recently Community Oversight Now. Sims now serves as the lead organizer for PATHE, Peoples Alliance on Transit, Affordable, Housing and Employment. She is also very active in Democracy Nashville, a nonprofit she helped establish. She is deeply committed to helping the community become more aware of the importance of the judicial system, including redistricting.

Keith Caldwell

Keith Caldwell is a Nashville native. He attended The American Baptist College where he earned a bachelor of arts degree in theology. He later earned a master of divinity degree from Vanderbilt University Divinity School.

He first became actively engaged politically through labor union organizing as a union steward and went on to become a grassroots community organizer with the Nashville Peace and Justice Center, where he later became the executive director. Caldwell is the former president of the Nashville branch of the NAACP and serves as a board member for the Scarritt Bennett Center. He is on the executive board of the IMF (Interdenominational Ministerial Fellowship). He is currently a provisional elder in the United Methodist Church and pastors the Historic Seay-Hubbard (UMC) Church in South Nashville. He is also the proud father of four adult children.

The Launch of the James Lawson Institute

5–7 p.m.

The Launch of the James Lawson Institute for the Research and Study of Nonviolent Movements

Watch the recorded live stream.

Please join the Vanderbilt University community for an evening of music, poetry, keynote address and a call and response to commemorate Rev. James M. Lawson Jr.  and his legacy of nonviolence in the pursuit of justice and the launch of the James Lawson Institute for the Research and Study of Nonviolent Movement to continue his work. 

Daniel Diermeier, Chancellor

An internationally renowned political scientist and management scholar, Daniel Diermeier is the ninth chancellor of Vanderbilt University. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Guggenheim Foundation and the Canadian Institute of Advanced Research. His teaching and research focus on formal political theory, political institutions, the interaction of business and politics, text analytics, behavioral models of politics, and crisis and reputation management. He has published four books and more than 100 research articles in academic journals, mostly in the fields of political science, economics and management, and in other areas ranging from linguistics, sociology and psychology to computer science, operations research and applied mathematics.

From 2016 until 2020, Diermeier served as provost of the University of Chicago, where he was also David Lee Shillinglaw Distinguished Service Professor in the Harris School of Public Policy and the College at University of Chicago’s Department of Political Science.

Through his career as a faculty member, Diermeier has combined excellence as a researcher and teacher with an entrepreneurial mindset.

C. Cybele Raver, Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs

An esteemed developmental psychologist whose leadership has spanned research, clinical, academic and administrative settings, Raver oversees all faculty, staff, programs and initiatives for Vanderbilt’s 10 schools and colleges. She also leads the university’s research, admissions, student affairs and residential life. Throughout her career, Raver maintained a stellar track record of federal funding for her quantitative research. She has recently been elected as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and holds a Cornelius Vanderbilt Chair as professor of psychology and human development at Peabody College. Prior to joining Vanderbilt, Raver was deputy provost at New York University, where she worked to advance interdisciplinary research and provided leadership for faculty and graduate students. She played a key role in the allocation of $3 billion in annual expenditure for a university serving 58,000 students across global campuses and led a large team aimed at strengthening NYU’s reputation and market position by upping standards of faculty hiring, advancement, tenure and retention for over 5,000 faculty.

John G. Geer, Ginny and Conner Searcy Dean of the College of Arts and Science

John G. Geer is the Ginny and Conner Searcy Dean of the College of Arts and Science, professor of political science, professor of public policy and education and co-director of the Vanderbilt Poll. Geer earned his Ph.D. from Princeton University (1986), securing his B.A. from Franklin and Marshall College (1980). Geer has published five books and more than 20 articles on presidential politics and elections, and he recently served as editor of The Journal of Politics (2005–09). His most recent book is In Defense of Negativity: Attack Ads in Presidential Campaigns published by the University of Chicago Press, which won the Goldsmith Book Prize from Harvard University (2008). He has provided extensive commentary in the news media on politics, including live nationwide interviews for Fox, CNN, NBC, CBS, MSNBC, ABC and NPR. Geer has also written op-ed pieces for Politico, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and Chicago Tribune. His lecturing has earned him a number of awards at Vanderbilt, including the “Squirrel Award,” the 2004 Birkby Prize, the 2005 Jeffrey Nordhaus Award and the 2009 Ellen Gregg Ingalls Award for teaching excellence. Geer is working on a series of projects that look at the news media’s coverage of attack advertising and how negativity may help voters make better choices.

Phillis Isabella Sheppard, Director of the James Lawson Institute

Phillis Isabella Sheppard is the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Associate Professor of Religion, Psychology, and Culture and director of the James Lawson Institute for the Research and Study of Nonviolent Movements. She is a recognized scholar for her interdisciplinary contributions to practical theology, womanist ethnography, psychology and religion, and spirituality and social activism. She is the author of Self, Culture, and Others in Womanist Practical Theology (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), Tilling Sacred Grounds: Interiority, Black Women, and Religious Experience (Rowman and Littlefield/Lexington Book, 2022). Her third book, Poking and Prying with a Purpose: Womanist Ethnography in Practice and Method, will engage Black women’s vocational narratives, ethnographic methodology and the vision of womanist thought. She has served on the steering or executive committees of several national guilds: Psychology, Culture, and Religion, the Womanist Approaches to the Study of Religion and Society, and the Association of Practical Theology. She is the book series editor for Emerging Perspectives in Pastoral Theology and Care (Lexington Books), editor for the Journal of Pastoral Society book review and editor of the Reflections section for the Journal of Pastoral Care and Counseling.

Emilie M. Townes, Dean of the Divinity School

The Rev. Dr. Emilie M. Townes, a distinguished scholar and leader in theological education, is dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School. She is also Distinguished Professor of Womanist Ethics and Society and director of Vanderbilt Divinity School’s Public Theology and Racial Justice Collaborative.

Townes’ broad areas of expertise include Christian ethics, cultural theory and studies, postmodernism and social postmodernism. She is a pioneering scholar in womanist theology, a field of studies in which the historic and current insights of African American women are brought into critical engagement with the traditions of Christian theology. Townes has a strong interest in thinking critically about womanist perspectives on issues such as health care, economic justice, poetry and literary theory. She is the author of the groundbreaking book Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil (Palgrave Macmillan Press, 2006). Other books include Breaking the Fine Rain of Death: African American Health Care and a Womanist Ethic of Care (Continuum, 1998), In a Blaze of Glory: Womanist Spirituality as Social Witness (Abingdon Press, 1995) and Womanist Justice, Womanist Hope (Scholars Press, 1993). She co-edited Womanist Theological Ethics: A Reader (Westminster John Knox Press, 2011) with Katie Geneva Cannon and Angela D. Simms.

Dennis C. Dickerson, Reverend James M. Lawson Chair in History

Dennis C. Dickerson is the Reverend James M. Lawson Chair in History and professor of history at Vanderbilt University. He specializes in American labor history, the history of the U.S. civil rights movement and African American religious history. He has written Out of the Crucible: Black Steel Workers in Western Pennsylvania, 1875–1980 (Albany, State University of New York Press, 1986), which chronicles the failed century-long struggle of Black steel laborers to attain occupational parity with their Caucasian counterparts. He also wrote Militant Mediator: Whitney M. Young Jr. (Lexington, University Press of Kentucky, 1998), which analyzes the leadership of a major leader in the U.S. civil rights movement in the 1960s. This book was named the 1999 Distinguished Book by the National Conference of Black Political Scientists. His book African American Preachers and Politics: The Careys of Chicago (Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 2010) examines the intersection between religion and politics in the careers of two clergy/politicians during most of the 20th century. His fourth book, The African Methodist Episcopal Church: A History (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2020), examines over two centuries of an African American religious body and how its insurgent impulses reckoned with powerful national and international systems aimed at Black subjugation. He has received grants and fellowships to support his research and writing from the American Academy in Berlin, American Philosophical Society, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Rockefeller Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies and the Louisville Institute.

His current book project is A Brother in the Spirit of Gandhi: William Stuart Nelson and the Religious Origins of the Civil Rights Movement. Also, he is co-writing with colleagues Daniel Cornfield and Larry Isaac a book that is tentatively titled Making a Nonviolent Movement: Nashville’s Pivotal Role in the Struggle for Civil Rights.

John M. Seigenthaler, Keynote Speaker

John M. Seigenthaler is an award-winning communications professional and former national television news anchor and correspondent at NBC News. He anchored NBC Nightly News Weekend edition for more than a decade. He appeared on Meet the Press, Dateline, TODAY, Weekend TODAY, MSNBC, CNBC and Discovery Channel.

Currently, Seigenthaler is a senior partner at Finn Partners, a global communications and public relations firm. He is a member of the Peabody Awards Board of Jurors, an RFK Journalism Awards judge and a member of the Freedom Forum advisory board. He holds a degree in public policy studies from Duke University.

Karen Brown, Musician

Karen Brown blends the soulful artistry of her church choir experience with the moving emotions of the great R&B legends and delivers a performance that is uniquely her own. She is a Mississippi native with more than 20 years of experience in music. Her journey began in her hometown church and continued through college. In 1992, she kicked off her solo career performing at local and regional clubs, festivals and concerts. Her extremely flexible and highly proficient vocal range soon became the most desired and sought-after voice in the South; it still is today. She sings in the key of love while specializing in the genres of gospel, R&B, soul and more. Karen has shared the stage with and sang background for some of the biggest names in the industry and has earned her position as a musical staple in the South through the elements of consistency, vocal efficiency, charisma and professionalism.

Odessa Settles, Musician  

Odessa Settles, born and raised in Nashville. The only sister of eight siblings has been on stage most of her life, thanks to her singing father, Walter Settles, former member of the Fairfield Four. Odessa has served as a multi-genre artist referral entity in Nashville for many years in the areas of vocal and instrumental music, acting, modeling, spoken word, recording projects and short films. Odessa considers herself an Americana/folk singer and novice songwriter, a lover of ukuleles and anything she can beat on (percussions, sticks, paddles, cans, buckets, tambourines, etc.). Her gifted mission in life is to minister to the sick, listen, learn, bridge gaps, sing, write bad songs, record, perform with as many people as possible and pass down the great lessons she has learned from individuals who have allowed her to share their space. Odessa’s travels have taken her around the country, overseas and back.

Courtney Bowden, Musician

A songwriter and storyteller, Bowden’s music can be found on most streaming platforms. As a Sojourners contributor, she has written several articles, including “For Our White Friends Desiring to be Allies” and “How White Liberals Perpetuate Relational Violence.” Through her writing and music, she is committed to speaking back—speaking truth—to systems of oppression, which she believes to be at the core of her resistance and pathway to liberation.

Kashif Graham, Spoken Word Artist

Kashif Andrew Graham is the outreach librarian for religion and theology in the Divinity Library of the Jean and Alexander Heard Libraries. He is a New Yorker in the South. He received his bachelor of arts degree in English honors literature and Spanish language and literature from the City University of New York (CUNY Lehman, Bronx). He moved to Tennessee in 2014 to pursue a master of arts in Church Ministry from the Pentecostal Theological Seminary in Cleveland, Tennessee. While there, he worked at Lee University’s William G. Squires Library as public services supervisor. In 2017, Kashif moved to Nashville and worked at Vanderbilt Central Library as collections maintenance coordinator. He also holds a master of arts in information sciences from the University of Tennessee–Knoxville. As a queer person of faith, Kashif is navigating life in the South.

Christiana Green, Spoken Word Artist

Christiana Green is the communications coordinator for the James Lawson Institute for the Research and Study of Nonviolent Movements. She is from Marietta, Georgia, and has lived in Nashville since she began her studies at Belmont University in 2017. She earned a bachelor of arts in Christian leadership with a minor in communication studies. She enjoys writing and focuses on connecting the human experience through storytelling, photography and showcasing the intricacies of people and their stories through visuals.