A Short Stay, Long in Memory
When he needed it, civil rights leader James Lawson found a home at BU| From Alumni Notes | By By Caleb Daniloff
James Lawson (STH’60) was jailed many times for his activism. Photo © Bettmann/Corbis
In the spring of 1960, all hell broke loose in Nashville, Tennessee. James Lawson, a young pastor and civil rights leader, was expelled from Vanderbilt University Divinity School for organizing lunch counter sit-ins and other nonviolent protests against racial injustice. Furious demonstrations erupted in response to the university’s action. Faculty resigned, and national media swarmed the city. Eventually Vanderbilt invited Lawson back. Instead, he headed for Boston.
“There were many offers to continue my education,” recalls Lawson (STH’60). “Boston University was the one that said, without reservation, just come and we’ll accept all your credits, we’ll grant your degree. That was critically important.”
Some eight years later, Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59) would call Lawson “the leading theorist and strategist of nonviolence in the world.”
The son and grandson of Methodist ministers, Lawson grew up in Ohio and earned a preacher’s license in 1947, the year he graduated from high school. Influenced by Gandhi, he worked for several years as a minister and teacher at Hislop College in Nagpur, India. After earning his BU degree, Lawson helped coordinate the 1961 Freedom Rides and the Meredith March in 1966. While pastor at the Centenary Methodist Church in Memphis, he played a major role in the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike. In support of their efforts, King came to Memphis and delivered his famous “Mountaintop” speech, on the eve of his assassination.
Lawson’s activism was wide-ranging. He protested the Cold War, spent more than a year in prison for refusing the Korean War draft, and was jailed multiple times in several states, once for praying on White House grounds.
Today, he is pastor emeritus at the Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles, a congregation he led for more than twenty-five years, and he continues to live out his beliefs by training activists, opposing the Iraq War, and fighting for immigrants’ and workers’ rights. Vanderbilt has made amends, naming Lawson a Distinguished Alumnus in 2005 and inviting him back to Nashville in 2006 as a Distinguished University Professor.
Although he spent only one summer at BU’s School of Theology before completing his degree, Lawson says he felt at home among so many familiar voices for social justice, such as Walter Muelder (STH’30, GRS’33, Hon.’73), Edgar Brightman (STH’10, GRS’12), and Howard Thurman (Hon.’67).
“The reason I hadn’t gone to Boston in the first place,” Lawson says, “was that I had read so much and knew so many people from there that I wanted to go someplace where there would be a different influence in my intellectual effort.”
And although the summer of 1960 may have been a blink of the historical eye in terms of Lawson’s study and work, it apparently let in just the right amount of light.
“My wife, Dorothy, and I had a number of very wonderful experiences in Boston those three months. We’d come from such a hectic firestorm. I continue to remember Boston University as a consciousness-raising and strength-renewing place.”