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The Rev. James Lawson speaks about his friend and fellow civil rights worker John Lewis during a celebration of life July 17 at the Ryman Auditorium.

After a monthslong community input process, Nashville’s new high school in Bellevue will be named for civil rights leader the Rev. James Lawson.

James Lawson High School will replace Hillwood High School at a new location. Members of the Metro Nashville Board of Education voted Tuesday evening on the school’s name.

Lawson, 93, is a civil rights activist and advocate of nonviolent protest. After being urged by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. while in graduate school to come to Nashville, Lawson mentored Vanderbilt and Fisk university students in nonviolent protest techniques in the late 1950s, training such civil rights leaders as Diane Nash and John Lewis. He was expelled from Vanderbilt University in 1960 after being arrested for participating in lunch counter desegregation sit-ins. He later helped develop strategies for the Freedom Riders.

Board member Abigail Tylor, who represents the area where the new school is located, led a monthslong effort to gather community input on potential names for the new school. Other names considered included Bellevue High School and Cecil Branstetter High School.

Many Metro schools are named after the community where they are located. To name a school after a person, living or dead, the school board’s naming policy requires the person to have made a significant impact on Nashville schools or the city.

“His contribution in shaping Nashville’s role in the civil rights movement means that he has substantial historic significance to Nashville’s history,” Tylor said.

After discussion of Lawson’s and Branstetter’s contributions to Nashville, board members agreed to request the Metro Council rename the street where the school is located after Branstetter and to name the school itself after Lawson.

“It’s amazing that we can sit on a board and have a conversation about two men who in 10 years or 50 years will still be remembered for the good things that they do,” board member John Little said.

After the vote, Mayor John Cooper shared enthusiasm for the new name.

“Thrilled that the new Metro Nashville Public Schools high school in Bellevue will be named after one of our nation’s and city’s greatest civil rights leaders,” Cooper shared on social media.

James Lawson High School in Bellevue is set to open in August 2023.

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