Rhetoric, Religion and the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1965

By Davis W. Houck; David E. Dixon | Go to book overview

§50 Everett Tilson

Everett Tilson was born in 1923 and raised in Seven Mile Ford, Virginia, a tiny village with a population of 277—none of whom was black. As a seventh grader, his teacher gave him a copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin; the book changed his life. A graduate of King College and Vanderbilt University, Tilson earned his doctorate in religious studies at Vanderbilt in 1952. He remained on faculty in the Divinity School for nine years. One of his students at Vanderbilt was a Methodist minister, James Lawson, a friend of Martin Luther King, Jr., a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a pacifist organization, and a leader of a local group of students he was training in Gandhian nonviolence. Several of Lawson’s students became prominent civil rights activists, including James Bevel, Diane Nash, John Lewis, Bernard Lafayette, and Marion Barry. These students, along with many others, commenced sit-in demonstrations and picketing in downtown Nashville during February 1960. On March 3, Lawson was expelled from the Divinity School by Chancellor B. Harvie Branscomb for leading a planned campaign of civil disobedience. Lawson was scheduled to graduate in May, just two months after the expulsion.

Following Lawson’s expulsion, Tilson was one of the more outspoken of Vanderbilt’s faculty. While his efforts to reinstate Lawson proved futile, he was not alone: 10 of the school’s 16 faculty members resigned and 17 students withdrew. Shortly before the fracas, Tilson accepted a position at the Methodist Theological School (MTS) of Ohio in Delaware. Nearly three years before the Lawson contretemps, Tilson had made up his mind to leave the Divinity School, as Branscomb refused to authorize a promotion and raise requested for him in the dean’s budget, ostensibly because of Tilson’s activism on race. A faculty member until he retired in 1988, Tilson remained active in the movement, getting arrested in Jackson,

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