Vanderbilt University Creates Institute to Honor Civil Rights Icon

More than four decades after Vanderbilt University expelled Rev. James Lawson for his involvement in the civil rights movement, the private, Nashville University has decided to honor the civil rights stalwart with the creation of the James Lawson Institute for the Research and Study of Nonviolent Movements at Vanderbilt University.

The institute, which will launch this fall, “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,” said university officials. The institute will also host public workshops, seminars and learning opportunities to train the next generation of community organizers equipped with the skills to make meaningful, sustainable change.

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“During these deeply polarizing times, the Rev. James Lawson continues to lead us on a path toward a more just world through an enduring message of compassion and redemption. As he has taught throughout his career, there can be no meaningful change and progress—no bridging the divide in our nation—without reconciliation and forgiveness,” said Vanderbilt Chancellor Dr. Daniel Diermeier. “I am excited to see the impact of this new institute on our community, especially the opportunities it will create for constructive discourse as well as the lessons in leadership it will provide our students.”

A staunch follower of the teachings of Mahatma Gandi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Lawson—who is now 92—taught nonviolent social change to a group of college students who would go on to become members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and revolutionize the nation by staging sit-ins at segregated lunch counters throughout the South. The late Congressman John Lewis was among that group of SNCC activists.

“The Lawson Institute will infuse our campus with energy and momentum as we pursue change that will make our society more equitable and unified in these divided and unequal times,” said Dr. John Geer, the Ginny and Conner Searcy Dean of the College of Arts and Science and professor of political science. “The opportunity to address and solve pressing social issues through this new institute will make it an undertaking worthy of James Lawson and his amazing legacy.”

Chief among the institute’s concerns will be three major goals: advancing researching, promoting conversations to foster “informed and civically engaged citizens in the 21st century and beyond,” and training the next generation through student scholarships and postdoctoral positions. Vanderbilt officials said that 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.”

In an interview with Diverse, Dr. Phillis Isabella Sheppard, the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter associate professor of religion, psychology and culture at the Vanderbilt School of Divinity and director of the Lawson institute said that she is excited about the collaborations that can take place across the university and throughout the city of Nashville. James Lawson Chalkboard Ernest Withers Iv 300ppi Resized E1627424566576

“Collaboration is at the heart of what we will do,” she said, adding that she is excited about the prospects of having Lawson be apart of some of the institute’s initiatives, adding that he is a “wonderfully brilliant practitioner that we want our students to be exposed to.”

Despite his unjust expulsion from the university back in 1960, Lawson and Vanderbilt reconciled, with him joining the faculty as a Distinguished University Professor.

“I am so pleased that we will launch the James Lawson Institute for the Research and Study of Nonviolent Movements this fall,” said Dr. Emilie Townes, dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School and distinguished professor of womanist ethics and society. “In doing so, we honor the witness of Rev. Lawson and recognize the enduring importance of seeking change through dogged determination and nonviolent witness.”

Walter Hudson can be reached at whudson@diverseeducation.com