They Walked Their Talk
Representative John Lewis and Reverend C.T. Vivian were down for whateva as our “ride or die” heroes. They formed the vanguard of the civil rights movement from the instant they understood that their skin color imprinted upon them a responsibility to seek fairness in a country that refused to share in the abundance produced by Black blood, sweat, and tears. Given the stature of these two men, it’s incredible to note that two Republican colleagues of Representative Lewis, couldn’t even get his picture straight, confusing him with the late Honorable Elijah Cummings.
John Lewis and C.T. Vivian were beautifully and proudly Black. Pictured side by side, you couldn’t find two men who appeared to be more different, both physically and in personality. While C.T. was matinee-idol handsome, John resembled a prize fighter — short and squat. Where C.T. radiated a certain warmth, John exuded a laser-beam intensity. In reality, they were two halves of a whole.
John Lewis always seemed to be so serious, positively glowering at the camera. It’s like he wasn’t smiling until racism in this country was DONE. C.T. Vivian came across with an impish grin or effervescent smile that belied the stone-cold seriousness of his purpose. Together, John Lewis and C.T. Vivian were our Black yin and yang of the Movement. Ride or die.
These were not armchair philosophers. They would never cower in a bunker while under attack. They would never seek protection behind mile-high fencing. They would never instruct others to do that which they would not do themselves. C.T. Vivian and John Lewis led by example.
From getting beat badly as a Freedom Rider on a Greyhound bus and while crossing the Pettus Bridge, John Lewis suffered his injuries and wore his bandages with pride. He spent 40 days at the notorious Mississippi Penitentiary at Parchman in 1961. His “crime” was trying to integrate the bus terminal in Jackson. Black people lost their lives, were beat up or arrested trying to do simple, ordinary things — like travel by bus to another city or state. Sadly, things haven’t changed so much in 2020.
John Lewis was a youthful voice of protest speaking at the March on Washington in 1963. He believed in staying in “good trouble.” Although Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. caught the spotlight, it was through the efforts of foot soldiers like John Lewis, that Dr. King was able to make a lasting impact. Whenever you needed him, John Lewis took the heat.
Yet, even after serving as a Democratic House representative to Georgia for an incredible 17 terms, Representative Lewis never stopped being about the business of justice, equality, and freedom. Who can forget in 2016 when he led one of his final sit-ins in the halls of Congress itself? In the face of an onslaught of violent domestic terror attacks in American cities, Representative Lewis and other House Democrats were pushing NRA-backed Republicans for a vote on pending gun control legislation. At a time of life, when many older people struggle with arthritis and other physical ailments that restrict movement, John Lewis, deep into his Seventies, got down on the floor and showed everyone how to sit-in.
Reverend Cordy Tindell (C.T.) Vivian was an organizational genius. When you needed “boots on the ground,” you called C.T. In his role as field organizer for the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) for three years in the Sixties, C.T. taught people how to demonstrate peacefully in the face of hateful, angry, and vicious White mobs and police. C.T. worked tirelessly on voter registration.
Like his old friend, John Lewis, C.T. was beaten, spat upon, and arrested for his efforts. In a speech to other activists, he said, ““Nonviolence is the only honorable way of dealing with social change, because if we are wrong, nobody gets hurt but us.”
Eventually C.T. Vivian founded several organizations like the Black Action Strategies and Information Center and the C.T. Vivian Leadership Institute at the Center for Civil and Human Rights, both in Atlanta. He also served as president of the SCLC in 2012.
So, with Black Lives Matter protests saturating America, there are many questions about the direction of the current Movement. Who are the faces of the new Black protest? What do they believe and how will they lead? Will the new movement for social change stay true to its nonviolent heritage? What steps will Black leadership take to form strong coalitions without letting sympathetic Whites co-opt the movement?
Luckily, both C.T. Vivian and John Lewis left their “ride or die” protest “roadmaps” behind them to be picked up by the next generation of Black activists. Many will note that these two peaceful warriors died on the same day, July 17. What a beautiful reward for lives well-lived, that they should pass into eternity walking arm-in-arm into the Light. The most powerful way you can honor their legacies is to vote for Joe Biden in November.