The Rev. James Lawson, who had impacted both the civil rights movement and the history of Vanderbilt, is returning to the university as a visiting professor. Once having been expelled from Vanderbilt as a student, Lawson has now been honored as a distinguished alumnus for furthering the school's mission globally through achievement and service.
Lawson was awarded last Wednesday with Vanderbilt's 2005 Distinguished Alumnus honor, which was established in 1996. During the banquet that night, Lawson was announced to take the role of a distinguished professor for the 2006-07 academic year.
"My two years at Vanderbilt Divinity School shaped my life spiritually and intellectually in ways that I have yet to properly assess," Lawson said, according to Vanderbilt. "We firmly believe in the mission and work of Vanderbilt University, and this 2005 award solidifies my sense of debt to Vanderbilt."
As a Vanderbilt student, Lawson was expelled for helping organize nonviolent sit-ins in Nashville that eventually ended racial segregation at lunch counters. His expulsion in 1960 made headlines and prompted some Vanderbilt faculty members to resign. The board reversed its decision two weeks later, but Lawson had already enrolled at Boston University.
"No other alumnus has ever contributed so much to issues of national and international justice and peace, and the promotion of a nonviolent world view," said Chancellor Gordon Gee, according to the United Methodist News Service. "James Lawson - and the faculty and students who supported him in 1960 - knew Vanderbilt's true mission even before Vanderbilt understood it entirely."
After his expulsion, Lawson was named director of nonviolent education for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and led campaigns against police brutality and discrimination. He served as pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Memphis and chairman of the strategy committee for the Memphis sanitation workers' strike in 1968, when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
Today, he continues his work for justice on the front lines. He is pastor emeritus of Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles, from which he retired from in 1999 after 25 years of service, president of both the SCLC of Los Angeles and Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, and a board member of the ACLU of Southern California and the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Rights.
"We in the U.S. can be healed of the spiritual consequences of racism, sexism, violence and greed ... when we freely and willingly join God in perfecting our imperfect world," said Lawson upon accepting the alumnus award.