Thursday, October 01, 2015

[087] Pair of civil rights legends to headline MTSU panel on Voting Rights Act at 50

Lawson, Vivian featured at Sept. 17 Constitution Day program

MURFREESBORO — Two titans of the Civil Rights Movement will discuss present-day civil rights challenges as part of the annual Constitution Day events on the Middle Tennessee State University campus in Murfreesboro.

“No Voice, No Choice: The Voting Rights Act at 50” will be the topic of a Sept. 17 program featuring legendary civil rights activists the Rev. James Lawson and the Rev. C.T. Vivian.

The program is set for 2:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 17, at Tucker Theatre on the MTSU campus. Admission is free and open to the public.

“The work that civil rights leaders undertook 50 years ago continues today,” said Dr. Mary Evins, coordinator of the American Democracy Project at MTSU. “Students must know our history in order to protect their future.”

The voting rights panel featuring Lawson and Vivian is the keynote program of the university’s annual Constitution Day, which includes civic programming at every MTSU college, Constitution readings aloud by students, faculty and staff across campus, and voter registration by the League of Women Voters.

Signed into law 50 years ago by President Lyndon Johnson on Aug. 8, 1965, the landmark Voting Rights Act was enacted by Congress to ensure that state and local governments passed no laws or policies to deny American citizens the equal right to vote based on race.

Subsequently, on June 25, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that one of the key sections of the Voting Rights Acts was unconstitutional. In June 2015 Senate and House leaders introduced a bill to restore core Voting Rights Act protections.

As trusted friends, advisers and lieutenants of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the late 1950s and 1960s, Lawson and Vivian were instrumental in a number of key civil rights events during that tumultuous period, including the Voting Rights Act.

“These gentlemen were literally on the front lines of the movement, so we’re thrilled they have agreed to come to the MTSU campus to not only share reflections of that seminal chapter in our nation’s history, but also to connect that history to today’s political landscape,” Evins said.

“We strongly encourage our students, the campus community and the wider community to join us for this special event.”

Moderating “No Voice, No Choice” will be Aleia Brown, an MTSU doctoral student in public history who is in residency as a visiting scholar at Michigan State University’s MSU Museum. Brown formerly was a curator at the National Afro-American Museum in Wilberforce, Ohio, and is part of a national group leading a web blog and Twitter chats on museum responses to the Ferguson, Missouri, protest movement.

The Rev. James Lawson has been a civil rights activist since his undergraduate days at Baldwin Wallace College in Berea, Ohio, participating in sit-ins, freedom rides, and serving 14 months in prison rather than take a student or ministerial deferment for refusing to report for the draft as a conscientious objector. While a divinity student at Vanderbilt University beginning in late 1950s, Lawson organized and led one of the most effective campaigns of nonviolent civil resistance in the 20th century: the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins of 1960. 

In the years that followed he was involved in strategic planning of numerous other major campaigns and actions, including the Freedom Rides to Montgomery and Birmingham, Alabama, and the march from Selma to Montgomery. King called Lawson “the mind of the movement” and “the leading theorist and strategist of nonviolence in the world.” 

Lawson, 86, lives in Los Angeles, where he was pastor of Holman United Methodist Church from 1974 until his retirement in 1999. In August 2014, Vanderbilt, which houses many of Lawson’s papers, hosted the second annual James Lawson Institute, an eight-day experience in strategic evaluation of nonviolent civil resistance. The James M. Lawson Jr. Chair at Vanderbilt was established in his honor in 2007.

• In November 2014, the Rev. C.T. Vivian was awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor: the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Vivian, who grew up in central Illinois, participated in his first sit-in in Peoria, Illinois, in 1947, long before the Montgomery bus boycotts and before Dr. King became a national figure.

He moved to Nashville in 1955 to study religion at historically black American Baptist College. Along with Lawson and Kelly Miller Smith, Vivian formed the Nashville Christian Leadership Conference, the first affiliate of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

A veteran of the Freedom Rides, Vivian gained national attention on Feb. 15, 1965, on the steps of the county courthouse in Selma. After leading about 40 marchers in an attempt to vote, Vivian was punched in the jaw and knocked down by burly county sheriff Jim Clark.

“It took a lot of courage to get in Jim Clark’s face,” civil rights leader Andrew Young was quoted in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2013. “But if he had not taken that blow in Selma, we would not have had the Voting Rights Act."

Vivian, 91, lives in Atlanta, site of the C.T. Vivian Leadership Institute.

Sponsors for “No Voice, No Choice” include MTSU's American Democracy Project, Center for Historic Preservation, College of Liberal Arts, John Seigenthaler Chair of Excellence in First Amendment Studies, College of Media and Entertainment, Jennings A. Jones Chair of Excellence in Free Enterprise, Office of the University Provost and the League of Women Voters of Murfreesboro/Rutherford County.

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