NASHVILLE — Civil rights champion Rev. James M. Lawson on Saturday lobbed pointed criticism toward Gov. Bill Lee, accusing the Republican of having a “hole down the middle of his soul.”

“Somehow you have lived in this world and in the state of Tennessee and allowed a hole to move down the middle of your soul,” Lawson said. “That means you have rejected the fact that you have been birthed by creation, to come alive, to be a human being and to be in the design and the imagination of God.”

Lawson gave his remarks before a Nashville audience during a ceremony honoring U.S. Rep. John Lewis. Lawson led a series of nonviolence workshops for student leaders as a divinity student at Vanderbilt University. Those sessions culminated in the 1960 sit-in protests that led to the successful integration of Nashville’s lunch counters, where Lewis participated with other Black civil rights leaders.

On Saturday, Lawson did not specify what exactly Lee had done to prompt his strict rebuke. Instead, he broke down a scene in the 1993 western film “Tombstone” where Doc Holiday explains that Johnny Ringo is driven to evil because he has an “empty hole right through the middle of him.”

A spokesperson for the governor did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.

Lee’s administration has faced national scrutiny for the past week after the Department of Health fired the state’s vaccination leader amid Republican outrage over her push to inoculate teenagers against COVID-19. He has also faced criticisms from Democrats for ending extra federal unemployment aid while promoting a new initiative that uses $2.5 million in taxpayer dollars to offer flight vouchers to out-of-state residents.

“You have a hole down the middle of your soul,” Lawson said to applause and cheers. “You act like you act because you are moving in the wrong direction of your own life.”

This isn’t the first time a civil rights leader butted heads with Lee. In 2019, Rev. William Barber rallied a crowd to support a wide range of issues, ranging from universal health care and living wage for the poor. Lee attended, but notably did not stand when Barber asked the crowd to rise to display their support.

“I am not fussing at you, I am saying it is time to put down the partisanship and do what is right,” Barber said at the time.

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