Four decades after being kicked out of Vanderbilt for daring to take part in the civil rights movement, the Rev. James Lawson has returned to the university that once denounced him for advocating racial equality.
While a student at Vanderbilt's Divinity School, Lawson embraced the nonviolent resistance movement led by Martin Luther King Jr., orchestrating sit-ins to challenge segregation in Nashville and mentoring others on how to seek change through peaceful means. As a result of his efforts to fight racism, Lawson was expelled from Vanderbilt in 1960. The expulsion sparked controversy nationwide, and prompted dozens of faculty members to threaten resignation. Ultimately, Vanderbilt agreed to allow Lawson to return, but instead he opted to complete his studies at Boston University.
Since then Vanderbilt repeatedly has tried to make up for this shameful misstep. In 1970 Lawson spent a brief period on sabbatical at the university. Then he was named Vanderbilt's "distinguished alumnus" in 2005. This school year, the 78-year-old retired pastor has been welcomed back as a "distinguished university professor."
In a statement issued through the university today, Lawson admits he's asked himself why he agreed to return? The answer: "I see teaching and preaching as priorities in my work ... I see teaching some people at Vanderbilt about how we can help change ourselves in the world, our city, our nation, as an important ingredient."
I think we all could learn something from Rev. Lawson.