Two Universities Bestow Honors on Civil Rights Icon James Lawson

Vanderbilt Divinity School and the College of Arts and Science at Vanderbilt University in Nashville will launch the James Lawson Institute for the Research and Study of Nonviolent Movements this fall. The institute 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.

Lawson, who has donated his papers to the Jean and Alexander Heard Libraries’ Special Collections and University Archives (See JBHE post.), will play an integral role in the direction and growth of the institute as a primary adviser.

Lawson enrolled at the Vanderbilt Divinity School in 1958. While a student he helped organize sit-ins at lunchcounters in downtown Nashville. In 1960, he was expelled from the university for his participation in civil rights protests.

Lawson completed his divinity studies at Boston University and then served as director of nonviolent education for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. From 1974 to 1999, Rev. Lawson was the pastor of the Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles. Lawson returned to Vanderbilt as a distinguished visiting professor from 2006 to 2009. An endowed chair at the Divinity School was named in his honor in 2007.

The University of California, Los Angles is also recognizing the contributions of Rev. Lawson by naming a building in his honor. Lawson has taught a labor studies course on nonviolence at UCLA for the past 20 years. In 2018, Lawson received the UCLA Medal, the campus’s highest honor.

The historic building that houses the UCLA Labor Center will be named for Rev. Lawson. UCLA has leased this building since 2002 and purchased the building in November 2020. The state has allocated $15 million to renovate the building that overlooks MacArthur Park.

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