The Rev. James Lawson, a civil rights icon who was expelled from Vanderbilt University’s Divinity School because of his work helping desegregate Nashville lunch counters in 1960, will return to the university to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Lawson, a retired Methodist minister who King called “the leading nonviolence theorist in the world,” will speak Monday in Langford Auditorium, near the intersection of Garland Avenue and Stevenson Center Lane, according to a statement from the university. The event will begin at 6:30 p.m with a candlelight vigil and interfaith service.

During his time enrolled at Vanderbilt, Lawson taught classes in nonviolent resistance at Clark Memorial Methodist Church, where students prepared to participate in sit-ins. Students from Fisk, Tennessee State University, American Baptist College and Meharry Medical College participated.

When Lawson’s involvement in the sit-ins led to his expulsion from Vanderbilt in 1960, it prompted many professors to resign in protest, according to the university.

Over time, officials at Vanderbilt have come to recognize Lawson as one of the school’s most significant former students.

In 1996, Lawson received the Vanderbilt Divinity School’s first Distinguished Alumnus Award, according to the university. And the Vanderbilt Alumni Association named him as a Vanderbilt Distinguished Alumnus in 2005.

Lawson returned to Vanderbilt in 2006 as a visiting professor and taught there for three years. He has donated a significant portion of his papers to Vanderbilt’s library.

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