James E. Lawson Jr. made a significant mark on the history of the Civil Rights movement in Tennessee and in the South. He is best known in Tennessee history as the Vanderbilt Divinity School student who was expelled in 1960 over his leadership in the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins. Lawson also helped organize the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Raleigh, North Carolina, in April 1960, and became one of the organization’s key leaders. He later served as a Methodist pastor in Memphis from 1962 to 1974, where he led the sanitation workers’ strike that provided the occasion for Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968.
Already an ordained Methodist minister, the thirty-year-old Lawson came to Nashville in 1958 to continue his ministry as southern regional director for the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an international Christian organization emphasizing pacifism and nonviolence, and to complete his divinity degree at Vanderbilt. While in Nashville, he became projects director for the Nashville Christian Leadership Conference, the local affiliate of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
In this role, he began teaching workshops in nonviolence to students from Nashville’s four predominantly black institutions of higher education. This led to the organization of the Nashville Student Movement, which initiated the sit-ins that began on February 13, 1960. The sit-ins ended on May 10 with the successful integration of the city’s downtown lunch counters.
The Vanderbilt controversy began on March 2 following a Nashville Banner report in which Lawson was quoted as saying he would encourage students to “violate the law.” Although Lawson denied the remarks, Vanderbilt Chancellor Harvie Branscomb gave him the choice of being expelled or giving up his leadership role in the sit-ins. Lawson accepted expulsion, which was supported by the university’s Board of Trust. An ensuing controversy at Vanderbilt lasted for several months. An eventual compromise between the administration and Lawson’s faculty supporters gave him the option of completing the remaining courses for his degree elsewhere and transferring them to receive a Vanderbilt degree. Lawson refused the offer, however, and eventually completed his Bachelor of Sacred Theology degree at Boston University’s School of Theology. However, he did return to Vanderbilt in 1970-71 to work on a Doctor of Ministry degree.
Lawson, who was born September 22, 1928, in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, graduated from Baldwin-Wallace College in Ohio in 1952. When he received a draft notice during the Korean conflict, Lawson, who had become a pacifist after registering for the draft, refused to report for duty. As a result, he was tried and convicted for draft evasion. After serving a thirteen-month sentence, he was paroled in order to work as a missionary teacher at Hisloe College in Nagpur, India, from 1953 to 1956.
After graduation from Boston University’s School of Theology, Lawson served as pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Memphis from 1962 to 1974. There he received a number of civic and community awards, including “Man of the Year” from the Catholic Interracial Council in 1969. After leaving Memphis, he became pastor of Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles; he is now pastor emeritus at that same church. He is married to the former Dorothy Wood, and they have three sons.
David Sumner, “The Publisher and the Preacher: Racial Conflict at Vanderbilt University,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 56 (Spring 1997): 34-43