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John Lewis and CT Vivian: Civil rights superstars, now with the ancestors

The late Democratic Comgressman John Lewis. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Michael Reynolds)

On 17 July, two leading figures from America’s civil rights struggle, Congressman John Lewis and Rev CT Vivian, died. Their lives were a testament to those better angels of human nature and the righting of wrongs.

On 18 July 1863, the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers, an all African American army unit (including some former slaves as well as free citizens of Massachusetts), was ordered to carry out a land assault on the fiercely defended Fort Wagner. It was part of an effort by Union forces to seize the Confederate port of Charleston, South Carolina and thus choke off much of the remaining exports and imports by the South during the American Civil War to help sustain their rebellion.

This attack (memorably portrayed in the film, Glory) was ultimately beaten back with major casualties to the regiment’s soldiers, but their heroism helped encourage tens of thousands of black men in the North to volunteer for military service in the Union army (after finally being allowed by the government to enlist in the army). Now, one day shy of 137 years after that battle, two other American heroes have lost their personal fights, at the age of 80 and 95 — Georgia Congressman John Lewis and Rev CT Vivian.

After his death, the Lewis family issued a statement noting that:

“He was a stalwart champion in the on-going struggle to demand respect for the dignity and worth of every human being. He dedicated his entire life to non-violent activism and was an outspoken advocate in the struggle for equal justice in America. He will be deeply missed.”

House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi said:

“Today, America mourns the loss of one of the greatest heroes of American history: Congressman John Lewis, the Conscience of the Congress”.

John Lewis had come into national prominence in the American civil rights struggle back in the early 1960s, while he was still in his early 20s. In his teens, he had written to Rev Martin Luther King Jr for help in finding funds for college tuition. As journalist Jonathan Capehart described the resulting circumstances, he wrote:

The historic life of Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) started when the 17-year-old from Troy, Ala., sent a handwritten letter to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. ‘Dr. King, I need your help,’ Lewis told me he wrote. ‘I want to attend this little college, Troy State College, it’s only 10 miles from my home. I submitted my application, my high school transcript. Can you help me?’

“In response, Lewis said during an interview in Atlanta in 2018, King sent Lewis a round-trip bus ticket to Montgomery, Ala. Upon seeing the young man before him, looking ‘fresh, clean, sharp’ in an ‘inexpensive suit,’ King asked, ‘Are you the boy from Troy? Are you John Lewis?’

“ ‘Dr. King, I am John Robert Lewis. I gave my whole name — but he still called me the boy from Troy,’ recounted Lewis. Also, there was Ralph Abernathy, who was King’s best friend and fellow civil rights leader. ‘To be candid, I was scared. I was nervous,’ Lewis continued. ‘To be standing in the presence of these two unbelievable leaders of this movement that I’d read about… and I knew that I was like a small, frightened child in the midst of greatness.’ That frightened teenager would grow up to be a great civil rights leader in his own right.”

Lewis eventually graduated from the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville where he had washed dishes and floors to pay for his tuition, and then, later, received a bachelor’s degree in religion and philosophy from Fisk University, one of the leading historically black colleges and universities in the US.

The late congressman was one of the early Freedom Riders, civil rights activists attempting to integrate interstate public transit in a racially segregated South. Those buses were supposed to have already been integrated in accordance with federal law and court decisions, but local custom was standing in the way all across the South. Lewis also participated in the lunch counter sit-ins movement designed to integrate those popular restaurants. And he was one of the keynote speakers — at just 23 years of age — of the 1963 March on Washington, the one that concluded with Rev Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream” speech.

Already known as a strong activist through his leadership of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Lewis had been given a nudge by the march’s “elders” to ratchet down his speech just a bit so it would not anger Kennedy administration officials, just as they were finally gearing up their efforts aimed at the passage of new civil rights legislation. Now, with Lewis’s passing, none of the speakers at the march remains with us. 

Less than two years after that event, on 7 March 1965, Lewis was at the forefront of marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. They had joined together for a voting rights march, scheduled to walk from the city of Selma to the state capital of Montgomery. Instead of being protected on their journey, instead, the marchers were set upon by state and local police, and Lewis himself was savagely beaten, leaving him with a skull fracture. (In a strange but fascinating detail from that event, the man for whom the bridge had been named, Edmund Pettus, had been a Confederate general and an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan — the clandestine, hooded, para-military body dedicated to suppressing the newly manumitted, former slaves in the South, after the Civil War.) 

The harsh reality of the attack on the marchers — and, of course, on Lewis as one of its leaders as well — became a contributing factor that led to President Lyndon Johnson’s full court press, against congressional opposition, to pass a voting rights protection in Congress. Southern senators in particular were opposed to any such measures. In his speech to the full Congress on 15 March, Johnson quoted the refrain of the American civil rights anthem — “We shall overcome” — in his demand that Congress pass the bill. In a historic vote, the Senate joined to pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Speaking about his own experiences in the civil rights struggle years later, Lewis said, “Sometimes when I look back and think about it, how did we do what we did? How did we succeed? We didn’t have a website. We didn’t have a cellular telephone. But I felt when we were sitting in at those lunch counter stools, or going on the Freedom Ride, or marching from Selma to Montgomery, there was a power and a force. God Almighty was there with us.”

Following the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act the year before, Lewis moved on to other community organising and advocacy activities, as well as a stint in the federal government as an associate director of the ACTION anti-poverty agency during Jimmy Carter’s presidency. But by 1980 he felt it was time to enter electoral politics himself, rather than simply carry on with public advocacy, programme leadership, or civil rights protests. He aimed first at an Atlanta city council slot. After six years of service there, he campaigned for a newly vacant congressional seat — first defeating fellow veteran civil rights campaigner Julian Bond in the Democratic Party primary election, and then winning convincingly in the 1986 general election. 

He was so popular with his constituents that in subsequent years, he was often unopposed in elections. Eventually, he was elected 16 more times to Congress, serving thirty-four years in that body. Once in Washington, he focused on poverty alleviation and improvements in education and healthcare, and campaigned for years for the establishment of a new Smithsonian museum dedicated to African American history. He also co-wrote a critically acclaimed memoir and a series of graphic novels about the civil rights movement, which won him a National Book Award. Along the way, he came to be known as “the conscience of the Congress” through his passionately argued positions, even as he managed to maintain good relations with those who might be strongly opposed to some of his own positions.

In one interview, Lewis recalled a moment in his office when, “ ‘Many years later, in February of ’09, one of the men that had beaten us [in a bus riding protest] came to my Capitol Hill office — he was in his 70s, with his son in his 40s — and he said, “Mr. Lewis, I am one of the people who beat you and your seat mate” on a bus, Lewis said, adding the man said he had been in the KKK. ‘He said, “I want to apologize. Will you accept my apology?” ’ ”

After accepting the apology and hugging the father and son, Lewis said that the three cried together. Or as Lewis said in another conversation, “It is the power in the way of peace, the way of love. We must never, ever hate. The way of love is a better way.”

Over the years, his influence was felt well beyond Congress, helping inspire a young Barack Obama, among many others, to take up electoral politics. Obama’s inauguration became, not surprisingly, a deeply emotional moment for Lewis — “an out of body” he had called it — especially since the congressman had earlier said he doubted he would ever live to see a black American elected as the nation’s president. (Along the way, Lewis had declined to attend George W Bush and Donald Trump’s inaugurations, insisting those victories had not been fairly won due to the contested count in Florida in the case of the former, and by virtue of that Russian internet interference in the election in the latter contest). 

In Congress, Lewis came to be seen as a kind of protean moral force, more than just a single representative, beyond his formal roles in his party’s congressional leadership. He also admonished younger generations to undertake “good trouble” in support of principled social activism. But he also continued to emphasise the necessity for this to be non-violent, disciplined action, rather than offering moral support for violence and destruction, in keeping with the ideals and tactics he had embraced since the 1960s, from the years he had been a leader in SNCC’s role in the civil rights struggle. (Lewis’s policies for SNCC eventually came to be overshadowed by the more strident “black power” rhetoric of Stokely Carmichael, once he took the leadership of SNCC in 1969.)

During his long tenure in Congress, Lewis had been a tireless advocate of government support for the formal recognition of a civil rights’ freedom trail, including the site of the voting rights march and the ensuing police riot at the Pettus Bridge where he had been attacked. The annual commemorative event on the date of the attack has become a popular event for politicians (and lobbyists — generating occasional criticism over the contributions made by the latter to the organisers of the event).

Both men well deserved the accolades they received over the years for their roles in the civil rights struggle, as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom which they both received from President Obama.

In the days following Lewis’s death, there has been concern he may not receive memorial ceremonies in keeping with his stature. The Covid-19 pandemic will almost certainly preclude large crowds in Washington inside the Capitol Building or elsewhere for tributes to the late congressman, or even allowing his remains to lie in state in the Capitol rotunda for public viewing. While Lewis’s passing has led to an outpouring of many messages of respect, sympathy and condolence from across the nation, his death only eventually managed to elicit some meagre praise from President Trump for his civil rights activities. Moreover, two Republican senators, Ted Cruz and Dan Sullivan, actually scrambled the pictures they used in their electronic condolences — using the face of the late Elijah Cummings instead of that of Lewis. Amazing.

As circumstances would have it, the country also lost another civil rights struggle giant, Rev Cordy Tindell (CT) Vivian, at age 95, on the same day Congressman Lewis had died. Vivian had also been a major force in the civil rights movement, working with Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and he had been part of the Freedom Riders movement — but he had begun his non-violent protests even earlier, protesting against racial segregation through a sit-in at a lunch counter in Peoria, Illinois in 1947. 

As part of the SCLC, Vivian had helped organise sit-ins and civil rights marches, and inevitably, too, some of those had ended in violence directed against Vivian and other protesters. In one dramatic occurrence, addressing a sheriff blocking his path in Selma, he had said to him, “We will register to vote because as citizens of the United States we have the right to do it.” At that point, the sheriff responded by beating up Vivian until blood was dripping off his face, all while newsreel cameras recorded it all.

Later on, Vivian created a college readiness programme to help care for children kicked out of school for protesting racism, a programme that became the guide for the federal Department of Education’s Upward Bound programme, an effort designed to improve high school and college graduation rates for students in historically underserved communities. Thereafter, Vivian also formed an anti-racism body that focused on monitoring the resurgent Ku Klux Klan.

Both men well deserved the accolades they received over the years for their roles in the civil rights struggle, as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom which they both received from President Obama. Given their fortitude, one wonders just how they would have addressed the current struggles of the Black Lives Matter movement, the push to eliminate memorials honouring the Confederate and glossing over the slavery past of the US, as well as the more general tumult stemming from responses to police killings of younger black men. 

A friend in the US wrote to me after news of the passing of John Lewis to pose this conundrum to me. As he said, “In the Age of Trump and George Floyd, it’s tempting to act as if nothing has changed since 1965, but that’s wrong. We have elected black officials all over the country, notably in the South. Obama was President (something Lewis thought couldn’t happen). One reason race relations are so tricky these days is because they lack the clarity they had in 1965.” 

But just possibly, if men of the stature of Lewis and Vivian had been in their prime, now, as national figures, they, and other people like them might have been in a position to exert the moral force necessary to advance the social and political reforms the country now desires. This might have become an effective counterweight to the words and actions of a president who demonises anyone who dares oppose him and his appalling views on race that has been like pouring high-grade aviation fuel on the flames of social protest. We could use the help right about now. DM

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