On July 4, 1826, two of our nation's founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, died within hours of each other on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Adams' son, the sitting president John Quincy Adams, called the coincidence of their deaths on such a significant anniversary "visible and palpable remarks of Divine Favor." Two centuries later, on July 17, 2020, two of our nation's second generation of founding fathers, C.T. Vivian and John Lewis died within hours of each other just three weeks before the 55th anniversary of the passage of the Voting Rights Act, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on August 6, 1965. The timing of their deaths is yet another visible and palpable manifestation of divine favor. It is up to all of us now to continue their work to create a society with social, racial and economic justice.
I was privileged to have had personal relationships with both men. I first met Congressman Lewis in 1990, when he and I were attending a civil rights symposium at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. I first met Rev. Vivian in 2006, when I invited him to give the keynote address at a “Teaching American History” seminar (a performance he graciously repeated for me on two other occasions). Both men were always accessible and very giving of their time — both agreed to be interviewed for my book on Selma. What struck me most about them was their warmth and humility, their down-to-earth demeanor, no pretension of greatness and for all they had endured, no bitterness. Until the day they died, they remained committed to the belief in a “beloved community,” and despite witnessing an erosion to many of the gains they sacrificed their lives for (particularly in the area of voting rights), both men remained steadfast in their belief that, as Dr. King often said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” As John Lewis said on more than one occasion, “Don’t get lost in a sea of despair. Stand up for what you believe. There’s still work left to be done. Get out there and push and pull until we redeem the soul of America.”
Cordy Tindell Vivian and Lewis were two towering giants of the civil rights movement. Born in Boonville, Missouri as an only child, Vivian's civil rights activism began early in life when he participated in a sit-in that successfully integrated a cafeteria in Peoria, Illinois in 1947 — 13 years before the better-known sit-in movement was launched in Greensboro, North Carolina and Nashville, Tennessee.
In 1959, Vivian, while attending the American Baptist Theological Seminary (which is now known as the American Baptist College) in Nashville, met James Lawson, who was teaching Mohandas Gandhi's non-violent direct-action strategies to a group of Black college students who were soon organized as the Nashville Student Movement. The group included Diane Nash, James Bevel, Bernard Lafayette and Lewis. Soon, Vivian was mentoring the young activists, and he helped found the Nashville Christian Leadership Conference. Vivian also helped organize the Nashville sit-ins in February 1960, as well as lead the first major march of the civil rights movement in Nashville. As one of Dr. Martin Luther King's chief lieutenants in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Vivian served as national director of affiliates. Along with King's other lieutenants, most notably Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young and Hosea Williams, Vivian seemed to be present at every major civil rights campaign.
Born in Troy, Alabama as the third of 10 children to sharecropper parents, Lewis always dreamed of being a preacher, and at the age of five was preaching to the chickens on his family's farms. As a young boy, Lewis had little interaction with white people, and it was not until his early teen years (after being denied a library card because he was Black) that he became more acutely aware of racial segregation. The Montgomery Bus Boycott inspired Lewis to pursue a life of civil rights activism. Soon thereafter, he wrote a letter to Dr. King who, upon their first meeting, referred to Lewis as "the boy from Troy." Following his participation in the Nashville sit-ins, Lewis was one of the 13 original Freedom Riders and was beaten by white mobs in Rock Hill, South Carolina and again in Birmingham, Alabama. On August 28, 1963, as national chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Lewis delivered the second most memorable address after King's at the March on Washington, where he called out the Kennedy Administration for its inaction on civil rights. But Lewis’s penchant for getting into what he called “good trouble” was just beginning.
Although Vivian and Lewis were on the front lines of many civil rights campaigns during their lives, both will forever be best remembered for their roles in the voting rights campaign in Selma, Alabama, where their destinies once again converged in 1965. On February 16, Vivian led roughly 25 marchers to the Dallas County Courthouse in the rain, to protest Selma’s new voter registration policy which made it nearly impossible for Blacks to register. On the steps of the courthouse, Vivian lectured Sheriff Jim Clark and his deputies about the evils of racism. Enraged, Clark struck Vivian squarely in the face. Dazed but unfazed, and with blood dripping from his mouth, Vivian continued: “We’re willing to be beaten for democracy, and you misuse democracy in the street. You beat people bloody in order that they will not have the privilege to vote.”
Three weeks later, on March 7, in what became known as “Bloody Sunday,” Lewis and Hosea Williams led nearly 600 marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge leading out of Selma to Montgomery. On that bridge, Lewis, along with hundreds of others, was brutally beaten by Alabama state troopers. Suffering a fractured skull, Lewis sustained the most serious injury of any of the marchers. His beating, and Vivian’s confrontation with Clark, remain two of the movement’s most defining moments.
C.T. Vivian and John Lewis built upon the foundations laid by others before them, and now they have finished their course; building upon their rich legacy is the challenge that awaits all of those who are truly committed to creating a society where social, racial and economic justice are not just lofty ideals, but a living reality.