James Lawson Under Arrest in Nashville During 1960
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The Rev. James M. Lawson Jr., a civil rights leader who was expelled from Vanderbilt University in 1960, is now a visiting professor there
By THEO EMERY
New York Times
Published: October 4, 2006
NASHVILLE — Just before 6 p.m. on a recent evening, students began to fill a lecture hall at Vanderbilt University. Some pressed cellphones to their ears, others sipped cups of coffee. Flip-flops scuffed the carpet as the students shed book bags and opened laptops.
A typical class, perhaps — until the teacher with the shock of white hair rose from the table at the front of the hall, greeted the students and asked a question: “How many of you have experienced a hate crime against yourself? Let’s see the hands.”
So began the lecture by the Rev. James M. Lawson Jr., 78, who returned to teach at Vanderbilt this fall, 46 years after the university expelled him for his role in lunch-counter sit-ins that made Nashville a springboard for a generation of civil rights activists.
The expulsion of Mr. Lawson, a Methodist divinity student who was one of the nation’s leading scholars of civil disobedience and Gandhian nonviolence, was quickly dubbed the Lawson affair, and tarnished Vanderbilt’s reputation for years. University officials apologized to Mr. Lawson long ago, honoring him and inviting him back for periodic lectures. Even Harvie Branscomb, the chancellor who presided over Mr. Lawson’s ouster, apologized before his death.
But the invitation to return as a visiting professor is a new chapter in relations between Vanderbilt and its famous former student.
“It isn’t often that an institution gets the chance to correct for a previous error,” said Lucius Outlaw, Vanderbilt’s associate provost for undergraduate education, who first proposed that Mr. Lawson be asked here for the year.
Mr. Lawson said the invitation came “out of the blue.” He bore no grudge when he was expelled, he said, nor does he today.
“I simply did not anticipate that Vanderbilt would do this, or offer me that, so I had no inkling,” he said.
He also said he intended to accept the university’s invitation to donate his papers to its archive.
When Mr. Lawson enrolled in 1958, Vanderbilt was still largely segregated and widely seen as aloof from Nashville, which had a reputation as being racially moderate though still a segregated city.
Mr. Lawson, who at the time was a field officer for the pacifist group Fellowship of Reconciliation, had spent three years studying nonviolence while a missionary in India. He was one of only a handful of blacks at Vanderbilt, which had begun admitting black graduate students, but not black undergraduates.
In some cases unwittingly, Mr. Lawson said, he began undoing segregation on campus and off. He ate at the university’s whites-only cafeterias and played intramural football. When he bought orchestra seats for the Nashville Symphony through the university, he and his date, Dorothy Wood (now his wife), were ushered to a blacks-only section of the balcony. Once there, Mr. Lawson said, another usher consulted their tickets and told them their seats were on the concert hall’s first floor.
“Dorothy and I desegregated Symphony Hall, because we went back downstairs,” he said. “They were a little surprised, but they led us to the row and we sat down.”
The university, he said, took notice and tolerated those activities. But that changed, he recalled, in the winter of 1960.
For months in late 1959, Mr. Lawson led workshops on nonviolence for students from Nashville colleges and universities, including Fisk, American Baptist, and Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial, in preparation for peaceful protests at downtown businesses and for a campaign to desegregate the city’s lunch counters. Their lunch-counter sit-ins, coming on the heels of those in Greensboro, N.C., in early February, were well-organized and drew national attention. Protesters kept up pressure on the city, and in late February about 80 students were arrested.
Under pressure from university board members, including James G. Stahlman, the strongly anti-integration editor of The Banner, one of two daily newspapers in Nashville, Chancellor Branscomb told the dean of the divinity school to ask Mr. Lawson to withdraw.
Mr. Lawson refused, and the board expelled him, which quickly led to protests, condemnation from other colleges across the country, and the resignation of the dean and faculty members from the divinity school.
Mr. Lawson finished his studies at Boston University and returned to Tennessee as a Methodist pastor in Shelbyville, south of Nashville, and then in Memphis.
His actions influenced a generation of activists who went on to help organize the Freedom Rides in the Deep South in 1961. Some, like Stokely Carmichael; Marion S. Barry Jr., who later became mayor of Washington; and John Lewis, who is a Democratic congressman from Georgia, took the national stage.
Chancellor Gordon Gee said Mr. Lawson’s expulsion was a defining moment for Vanderbilt, forcing it to decide whether to modernize or “remain in amber.” His return this year, Mr. Gee said, closes the loop on a transformative period in the university’s history.
“It’s a reminder that we have much left to do,” he said. “But we’ve come a long way.”
Mr. Lawson admits to a certain anxiety about being the torchbearer for the civil rights movement.
“I want to be sure that my understanding of the 50’s and 60’s is relevant to the present,” he said.
During the evening lecture, he tucked his hands in his trouser pockets and jingled loose change as he paced in front of the class. He sprinkled his comments with references to the Bible and Gandhi as the students discussed hate crimes, role-played confrontations between strangers, and saw a movie about the antiapartheid movement in South Africa.
A student in the back row, Elias Feghali, asked about violence and Islam. Mr. Lawson hesitated only a moment before starting a discussion of the international arms trade and how difficult it was to disarm a society armed to the teeth.
“I don’t happen to think that Islam is the most violent religion,” he added. “I think Christianity is. As a Christian, I think we need to think about ourselves first, and clean up our own act.”
Afterward, Mr. Feghali said he had been “blown away” by Mr. Lawson’s course. Nonviolence, Mr. Feghali said, is more relevant today than ever.
“Obviously it’s the right step to take,” he said of Vanderbilt’s invitation to Mr. Lawson. “They probably should have reached out to him much earlier.”