Remembering C.T. Vivian and John Lewis: Civil Rights titans in life–legends in death

July 17, 2020 will be forever remembered as the day that two Titans of the Civil Rights Movement, Reverend Cordy Tindell Vivian, 95, and U.S. Rep. John Lewis, 80, transcended this life to the realm of the ancestors.

May they forever rest in peace…

There is a touch of irony that Rev. Vivian and Rep. Lewis died on the same day much in the same way that Presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died only hours apart on July 4, 1826. That the latter spent their adult lives forging individual colonies into what would become known as the United States–and the former spent their adult lives fighting to perfect that Union for Black people who had been enslaved by it and later treated as second-class citizens within it, will be studied by future generations in perpetuity.

EdId_nmXgAEkadP(The late Reverends C.T. Vivian, Joseph Lowery, and Rep. John Lewis, pictured here in 2018 with one of the last living Civil Rights legends, former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young)

That Vivian and Lewis chose non-violent tactics in the face of virulent violence from ardent Jim Crow segregationists, indeed, is the stuff of legend. While the pair were separated in age by about 15 years, their bond encapsulated the experiences of what I often call the “Greatest of ‘The Greatest Generation.'” Meaning, while historians give the “Greatest Generation” appellation to the men and women of all races who served to defeat Axis tyranny during World War II, the Black men and women born between the 1920s and 1940s deserve double the respect because they not only fought or were born during the struggle against fascism abroad, but they fought against pernicious white supremacy and systemic racism right here at home.

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As for Rev. Vivian and Rep. Lewis, their early lives were distinctly different; Vivian was born in Missouri and moved with his mother to Macomb, Illinois as a child, where he would go on the become editor of his school newspaper and work at a local park before moving to Nashville, Tennessee to study at the American Bible College. Lewis was born near Troy, Alabama on a sharecrop farm, one in which he would have to drop out of school for a time during each harvest season to help his family earn basic subsistence. His family called him “Preacher” due to his penchant for preaching to the chickens he tended as if they were his congregation; in 1959, galvanized by the works of Dr. Martin Luther King and his lieutenants in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Lewis moved north to Nashville to begin his own studies at American Bible College.

That year, 1959, found Lewis and Vivian under the tutelage of Rev. James Lawson, an adherent of non-violent social unrest first espoused by the American Transcendentalist in the 19th Century, but arguably perfected by Mohandes Gandhi in the 20th Century. The duo were joined by a number of students at Fisk and Tennessee State Universities, including future legends Diane Nash and James Bevel.  They would found the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and by 1961, member chapters comprised mostly of young students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the South, were challenging Jim Crow segregation through sit-ins at local department stores and restaurants–often amid violence from local whites bound and determined to maintain the racist status quo.

Vivian and Lewis would go on to be arrested scores of times, with Lewis later recounting that his then growing fame for being arrested caused angst with his family back home in Alabama who feared that he was a “trouble maker” who should just let Jim Crow alone. Undaunted, it was Lewis who was tapped in 1963 to join the panel of distinguished speakers at the March on Washington.

While his mentor Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is the most mentioned among mainstream historians, Lewis’ speech roused the packed crowd as well. His edited speech, I must add, as King, Bayard Rustin, and A. Phillip Randolph edited Lewis’s words only minutes before the program began due to word filtering out that then Attorney General Bobby Kennedy was livid that the same could invoke violence. Lewis reluctantly agreed to edit an original text that read: “The time will come when we will not confine our marching to Washington. We will march through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did. We shall pursue our own scorched earth policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground — nonviolently.” 


In 1965, Vivian and Lewis were further etched together when Vivian was sucker punched by Selma, Alabama Sheriff Dallas Clark on the Courthouse steps–only to get up and continue his speech for the cameras. Lewis, several weeks later, was beaten nearly unconscious by state troopers during the same campaign–beatings that were televised and moved then President Lyndon B. Johnson to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965.


In the decades after the Civil Rights Movement ended, Rev. Vivian would continue to preach and advocate for education for young Black students. Lewis would later win a seat on the Atlanta City Council before winning a very contentious battle against another legendary figure from the movement, Julian Bond, for the Congressional seat that he held from 1986 until his passing yesterday. Both men had the honor of being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by the first Black President of the United States, Barack Obama.

In a recent interview with Washington Post writer Jonathan Capeheart, Rep. Lewis, pictured below looking at the “Black Lives Matter” Mural in Washington D.C., spoke about the protests that erupted after George Floyd, 46, was filmed being strangled to death by a white police officer, “It was so moving and so gratifying to see people from all over America and all over the world saying through their action, ‘I can do something. I can say something’.”


Indeed, and for every single American who is doing and saying something each day to chip away at the centuries old legacy of systemic racial oppression, we owe a debt of gratitude to Rev. C.T. Vivian and Rep. John Lewis for having shown us how to be courageous and determined in our various strides towards freedom and justice.