Last week the world suffered another tremendous loss. In the midst of a pandemic and the exposure of racist policing, the light of not one, but two, fearless leaders of the civil rights movement ceased to shine. On July 17, Rev. C. T. Vivian died at the age of 95, and Rep. John Lewis lost his fight with pancreatic cancer at the age of 80. It is significant to me that these two great men represent the elder leadership of the movement and the young revolutionaries, respectively. And yet, they fought side by side, sacrificing life and limb, to ensure that African Americans had basic civil rights in a country founded on the principles of “equality for all.”
C.T. Vivian helped to organize the Nashville sit-ins and civil rights marches, and also participated in the Freedom Rides. He was a member of the executive staff of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and a close personal friend of its president, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In fact, Dr. King, known for his great orations, called Rev. Vivian, “The greatest preacher to ever live.” Vivian used these skills to convey with eloquence and passion the goals of the civil rights movement.
My favorite memory of Vivian is as he stood on the steps of the courthouse in Selma, Alabama trying to register people to vote. As he expressed their demands to the sheriff, he was struck so hard in the face that the sheriff broke his own hand. And yet, Vivian rose from the ground, bloody but not broken, and continued his argument as articulately as he began.
He fought for equality throughout his long life, co-founding the Center for Democratic Renewal (a.k.a. The Anti-Klan Network) and the C.T. Vivian Leadership Institute. Even in his ninth decade on Earth, Vivian did not slow down. My husband remembers running into him in the airport not long ago, as Vivian raced through on his way to fight for justice, with the trademark sparkle in his eye and a pep in his step. He was a man of strong conviction, incredible passion, and amazing courage, and the world is better because he was in it.
John Lewis was a soldier of the civil rights movement with whom we are all familiar. Lewis, as humble as he was powerful, made it a point to always connect with young people and graced GDS with his presence and invitations to meet with him in his Capitol Hill office. He even told his story in a graphic novel, March, to share his experiences with the younger generation.
John Lewis became one of the most respected elder statesmen of the U.S. Congress, but I remember him as the baby of the group. He was the youngest member of the famed Big Six, and too young for me to call, “Uncle John,” as I referred to MLK as my Uncle Martin. As a college student, he organized sit-ins, and at the tender age of 21, participated in the Freedom Rides, which led to his assault and arrest by local police. At 23, Lewis became a nationally recognized leader as chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and made a courageous decision when he took a stand against his fellow students and decided to participate in the Selma to Montgomery march, which, of course led to his brutal attack on the Edmund Pettus Bridge and subsequently the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Lewis was the youngest person to speak at the March on Washington. Evidence of his radical views can be seen in the circumstances surrounding this presentation. Lewis was forced to revise his speech when the elders got wind of it—or lose his position at the podium. Lewis scrambled behind the scenes, at the foot of the Lincoln statue, to find a compromise that would satisfy the others and not sacrifice his own convictions. He knew the value of working together to find common ground, whether it was between different generations, races, or parties, and he took his talents to Capitol Hill, representing Atlanta in my father’s old seat. He served for 34 years, earning the title, “The Conscience of the Congress.”
His fight for justice was not limited to African Americans, and he actively worked to ensure equal protection under the law for all, including the LGBTQ community, immigrants, Native Americans, Asian Americans, farmers, and indeed, all humans. One of the most impressive things about John Lewis, in my estimation, was that despite his position of power and influence, he always had time for the people. I can recall approaching him hesitantly at an event when I first came to Washington, knowing that he had not seen me since I was a child. Before I could reintroduce myself fully, he said, “It’s little Paula,” and he embraced me with a warmth and sincerity that made me feel so welcomed in my new town.
Lewis had an impeccable reputation and heart of gold, and he also had some pretty smooth moves on the dance floor, which you can read about in Walking with the Wind, as he describes dancing with Shirley McClain at a house party in the sixties in between civil rights battles (more evidence of his youthfulness during the movement).
C.T. Vivian and John Lewis were extraordinary human beings, each with an incredible vision for the way this country could be, who worked together to realize a common goal. They were not deterred by those who sought to silence and oppress them, but rather recognized the value of their voices and fought with moral conviction to bring about true change.
It is because of people like them that we are able to have a school like Georgetown Day School, which “honors the worth and integrity of each individual in a diverse school community,” allowing us to learn from one another and expand our understanding of the world. In these times that seem to mirror the turbulence of the sixties and negate the progress we have made towards equal opportunity for all to achieve the American dream, these American heroes provide us with role models to aspire to, and as the struggle continues, words to live by:
“People do not choose rebellion, it is forced upon them. Revolution is always an act of self-defense.”
“You must be bold, brave, and courageous and find a way to get in the way.”