Rev. James Lawson
Artist: Simmie Knox
Current Location: Kirkland Hall
Described by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as “the leading nonviolence theorist in the world,” James 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 following 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.
Additional recognitions, awards and news
Photos and Videos of Rev. James Lawson
Civil Rights pioneer Rev. James Lawson returns to Vanderbilt
The Rev. James Lawson: ‘Moving Ourselves from Unknown’