Vanderbilt Athletics' Statement on Racial Injustice in our Society

Greg Arias

In 1960, Vanderbilt University learned a powerful lesson when we expelled Divinity School student Rev. James Lawson for leading the nonviolent protests against discrimination at Nashville’s downtown lunch counters.

Three years later, a new chancellor, Alexander Heard, arrived at Vanderbilt with more progressive views on race. In his inaugural remarks, he called fuller freedoms for African Americans “the most tenacious and important issue of our time.”

An avid baseball fan, Chancellor Heard understood the role that athletics plays in American life, and he used the venue of sport to send a signal to the world that the Vanderbilt that had expelled Rev. Lawson was changing. He urged basketball coach Roy Skinner to recruit black players at a time when the Southeastern Conference had yet to desegregate. African American basketball pioneers Perry Wallace and Godfrey Dillard chose Vanderbilt at a time of great social unrest in Nashville and throughout the country.

Tanks rolled down West End Avenue, the National Guard occupied Centennial Park and ringed the state capitol. In many ways, the events of the last several weeks remind us of the 1960s.

We look to the past to learn and grow. Expelling Rev. Lawson was the wrong decision, but we learned from it and we changed. Rev. Lawson taught us a lesson in courage and perseverance, and today we celebrate him as one of our own.

Perry Wallace used to say there was a line that connects all of us at Vanderbilt, “a line that includes an education that has to be used to be productive in society, to help society and others.”

Chancellor Heard used to say that “each university has its unique bundle of qualities – its heritage, its resources, its special opportunities and obligations, its hopes.” So, now, as inheritors of a pioneer’s legacy and as a university with its own heritage of mistakes and triumphs, our own opportunities and hopes, we at Vanderbilt Athletics commit ourselves to navigating these uncertain times with courage and honesty.

Interim Chancellor Susan Wente said in a letter to the Vanderbilt community that our “path forward means going beyond just listening. We need to call out acts of hatred and racism. We need to draw on our strength as an institution of scholarship and discovery to uncover truth, to support individual and collective actions within our community, and to offer meaningful ways forward to help society heal. As a university, we have long served as a safe harbor for the vigorous exchange of ideas and viewpoints. However, we strongly condemn those who wish to stoke the fires of divisiveness and hatred.”

With that philosophy in mind, we encourage our student-athletes, coaches, staff and supporters to actively engage in the world around them, to use their platforms to speak out on issues of racism and inequity, to have open and honest conversations amongst each other, and to stand up for one another. For far too long, the issue of race in this country has been used to divide us.

We will resist that trap and will instead listen, learn, work, and stand together as one Vanderbilt Athletics family.

-- #AnchorDown --

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