Rev. James M. Lawson Jr., the pastor who brought Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis in 1968, is donating his papers to Vanderbilt University.
Lawson, whom King as “the leading nonviolence theorist in the world,” was pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in South Memphis in the 1960s. He invited his friend and mentor King to Memphis in the spring of 1968 to support striking sanitation workers. King was assassinated during one of those trips.
“For decades I have expected the archival trail of my life’s journey would be located at Vanderbilt,” said Lawson, who graduated from Vanderbilt Divinity School in the 1960s. “In spite of certain events of the 1960s, Vanderbilt’s vision and I have never broken step.”
Lawson joins several other civil rights leaders who donated or committed their historic papers to Vanderbilt Special Collections, including: Rev. Kelly Miller Smith, assistant dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School from 1968 to 1984, helped organize the Nashville Christian Leadership Council and worked directly with Lawson; and John Seigenthaler, journalist and founder of the First Amendment Center, served as a special aide to Attorney General Robert Kennedy.
Lawson first met King in the spring of 1957 when Lawson was a student at the Oberlin Graduate School of Theology. King encouraged him to head south immediately to work in the struggle for civil rights. Lawson applied as a transfer student from Oberlin to Vanderbilt Divinity School in 1958 and began his studies that fall.
In addition, he helped organize sit-ins by African American students, which led to the end of racial segregation of lunch counters in downtown Nashville. In 1960 the executive committee of the Vanderbilt Board of Trust voted to expel Lawson from the university for his role in the movement. The expulsion generated national headlines and prompted some Vanderbilt faculty members to resign in protest.
A compromise was worked out later to allow Lawson to complete his degree from Vanderbilt, but he chose to transfer to Boston University.