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Tue. Jun 18th, 2024

The Legacy of the Reverend James Lawson Jr. is still alive in Nashville, Tennessee

By meerna Jun12,2024

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – The Rev. James Lawson, a renowned civil rights activist, died Monday in Los Angeles at the age of 95.

Lawson is widely known as a pioneer of nonviolence in the Civil Rights Movement, which aimed to use nonviolent strategies to achieve equality and justice for all. This legacy continues in Nashville through educational institutions and programs created in his honor.


In the late 1950s, Lawson began teaching peacekeeping workshops in a Nashville church basement. At the time, there were four historically black colleges in the city: Fisk University, Tennessee State College, American Baptist Theological Seminary, and Meharry Medical College.

Among the many students he taught were Diane Nash, John Lewis, Bernard Lafayette and Marion Barry. Lawson’s teachings played a major role in Nashville becoming the first major city in the South to desegregate its inner city in 1960.

Reverend James Lawson Jr. conducts workshops on the principles of peaceful resistance. Courtesy: Vanderbilt University Special Collections

Lawson was enrolled as a student at Vanderbilt University’s Divinity School before being expelled in 1960 for his activities.

“Without any ill will towards any member of the Vanderbilt community, I can only wish this university all the best in the months and years ahead,” Lawson wrote in a letter in response to his expulsion.

In 2006, Lawson became a distinguished professor at Vanderbilt University, where he taught for three years.

Then, in 2022, the James Lawson Institute for the Research and Study of Nonviolent Movement was established at Vanderbilt University.

“The institute was designed not to die with him, but actually lives on in an even stronger way,” said Emilie Townes, former dean of the Divinity School at Vanderbilt University. “What has always amazed me about Reverend Lawson is his thorough analysis of what is happening in the world and his unwavering belief that the only way to achieve real change is through non-violent means, so I tried to include that in the book the way I ran the school.”

Portrait of the Reverend James Lawson by Simmie Knox. Courtesy: Vanderbilt University Special Collections

The Institute was created through cooperation between the Divinity School and the College of Arts and Science. Dr. Phillis Isabella Sheppard, executive director of the James Lawson Institute at Vanderbilt University, said this maintains Lawson’s vision and ideals.

“It helps students grapple with the complex history of the South, especially Nashville, in a way that inspires them,” Sheppard said. “It is important that these important places are physical reminders, as well as places where we can come together to talk about the history that has divided us, but also about the stories of places where real action, conversation and dialogue takes place.”

In 2023, James Lawson High School opened in Nashville’s Bellevue neighborhood, replacing the 64-year-old Hillwood High School.

“One of the problems at Hillwood is the disconnect between the local community and the incoming students, so what better teacher, architect of the Civil Rights Movement, to bring people together than the name Reverend James Lawson,” said Eli Foster, an educator with Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS). .

Photo: WKRN

The district’s newest school, housed in 300,000 square feet, serves 1,600 students.

Foster said he worked hard behind the scenes to make this tribute to Lawson a reality.

“It is not just a name, but a description of a person who has dedicated his entire life to the ethic of peaceful and active resistance to injustice,” Foster said. “I wanted this school where my children work to be a school that symbolizes love and uniting people.”

From left to right: Eli Foster, Reverend James Lawson Jr. and Dr. Carmen Reese Foster
Courtesy: Eli Foster

Lawson is survived by his wife, Dorothy Wood Lawson, and two sons, Morris and John.

⏩ Read today’s top stories at wkrn.com

The following statements were provided to News 2 in response to Lawson’s death:

“Revving the engine. James Lawson embodied the best of interfaith and ecumenical justice. As a supporter of nonviolence and a human rights activist, his death is a profound loss to our school, nation and world. He was one of the most important prophetic voices of the last 100 years , consistently bringing truth to power in our teaching, preaching, and training. At Vanderbilt Divinity School, we will continue to honor Reverend Lawson’s legacy by upholding our shared commitments to justice and interfaith dialogue. We join his family and community in prayer as they mourn great loss.”

Yolanda Pierce, dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School

“Reverend Lawson was an American hero. Without his spiritual leadership, moral example, and deep understanding of the principles and practices of peaceful protest, the civil rights movement as we know it might not exist. For most of his life he was a passionate advocate for justice and a more perfect union. He implored us to work together in love, not hate. And in a time of deep polarization, he showed us how to cultivate our common humanity. The courage he showed and the grace he showed Vanderbilt and others continue to show us the way forward.

Daniel Diermeier, president of Vanderbilt University

By meerna

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