John Lewis (left) and C.T. Vivian (right), both leaders in the Civil Rights Movement, died on July 17. 

John Lewis and C.T. Vivian — impactful, persistent, pioneers. These are the words University of Georgia students Hayliegh Rose and Joshua Patton used to describe the two civil rights leaders.

For Rose, Lewis and Vivian’s fight for civil rights throughout the decades proved to her that African Americans can impact a multitude of people, despite the persecution they may face.

Their fight to ensure justice and equality, up until their final years, pushes UGA’s community to reflect on how they can get into “good trouble.”

“I loved John Lewis’ use of the oxymoron ‘good trouble,’ which focuses on the idea that good trouble is necessary to fight for what is right even if that means getting in trouble,” Patton, a senior sociology major, said.

“Nothing can stop the power of a committed and determined people to make a difference in our society. Why? Because human beings are the most dynamic link to the divine on this planet.”

– John Lewis

Born in Troy, Alabama, Lewis became a pivotal figure in the civil rights movement, often risking his life in Freedom Rides by sitting in a seat reserved for a white patron. Although arrested 40 times and physically attacked in the 1960s, Lewis dedicated his life to nonviolent action against systemic racism.

Lewis marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr. at the 1963 March on Washington, and later became chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was elected to Atlanta’s city council.

In 2011, Lewis spoke at UGA’s 11th annual Mary Frances Early Lecture held in the UGA Chapel. He spoke about what progress the world has made but yet how much more action needs to be done to protect citizens who are “left out, left behind.”

Lewis received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2011. The congressman represented Georgia’s 5th district and remained an Atlanta resident until his death on July 17. Lewis underwent treatment for pancreatic cancer in July 2019.

“Nothing can stop the power of a committed and determined people to make a difference in our society. Why? Because human beings are the most dynamic link to the divine on this planet,” Lewis said in his book, “Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America.”

Known for not seeing a separation between civil rights and religion because “racism is a moral issue,” C.T. Vivian and other ministers founded Nashville Christian Leadership Conference to train students on how to end segregation in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1961, he joined the SNCC and continued Freedom Rides through Jackson, Mississippi. It was there that Vivian was badly beaten at Parchman Prison but continued to fight for racial justice. Martin Luther King Jr. asked Vivian to join the executive staff of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and Vivian later helped get the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts passed.

Vivian provided civil rights counsel to Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton while they were in office. He continued to lecture on racial justice and democracy until his death on July 17. In 2013, President Obama awarded him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Both Patton and Rose said they learned about Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks in their history classes but not enough about other prominent Black figures.

“We only learning about white history and the acts of slavery, where Black people were showcased as weak. We have not heard of the majority of Black men and women who fought hard,” Rose said. “John Lewis fought the same fight from the start of the civil rights movement to today during police brutality protests. We should teach our kids about that too.”

Joseph Watson Jr. teaches a course on civil rights at UGA and said relearning about the Civil Rights moment in history while in college is important. Watson, director of UGA’s Public Affairs Communications program, said through learning about Lewis, Vivian and other civil rights leaders, his students learn that advocacy is not a “spectator sport.”

“You can’t sit in your apartment and type on your laptop and think that’s advocacy,” Watson said. “Lewis and Vivian didn’t say it or type it, they went out and did it.”

Whether at the SNCC, Freedom Rides, Selma or the March on Washington with Martin Luther King Jr., Lewis was present in every prominent civil rights event, and that’s important for students to understand, Watson said.

Reflecting on their legacy

It is said that Vivian continued to fight — nonviolently — for equality, justice and voting rights. In a 2015 interview with Democracy Now!, Vivian said full voting rights hadn’t been achieved and the fight must continue.

“There is nothing we haven’t done for this nation. We’ve died for it. But it’s been overlooked, what we’ve done for it. But we kept knowing the scriptures,” Vivian said in the interview. “We kept living by faith. We kept understanding that it’s something deeper than politics that makes life worth living.”

From the civil rights movement to the last year of his life, Lewis fought for justice. In 2016, he joined Democratic members of Congress and staged a sit-in protest on the floor of the House on Capitol Hill in Washington in 2016, seeking a vote on gun control measures.

In 2017, Lewis boycotted President Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Most recently, he reflected on the deaths and injustices in the Black community and the Black Lives Matter protests that followed.

“This feels and looks so different,” he said of the Black Lives Matter movement to the New York Times. “It is so much more massive and all inclusive. There will be no turning back.”

On July 10, Lewis’ last public statement as a congressman was a letter to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos rebuking a plan to block international students from attending college in the U.S. unless some classes were held in person. The Trump administration rescinded the directive on July 14.

In honoring Lewis and Vivian’s legacies, Rose said she views their deaths as “solidified motivation” to press forward because in due time and with enough believers, change can be accomplished.

Patton said he hopes the next generation can focus on being “selfless leaders” like Lewis and Vivian were.

“I believe that Black students at UGA should follow in his footsteps and be committed toward the success and well-being of other Black students but also other underrepresented groups on campus,” Patton said.

Looking back in history, Lewis and Vivian fought for equality from a young age to their deaths. Watson said this is a testament that the journey to equality is ongoing. He said that’s the lesson students and administration must understand — the fight for justice will never be complete.

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