2020 has been a year of unexpected events and with all that has happened, the new of losing two of the world’s greatest Civil Rights icon devasted many especially those in the African-American community. For those of us who grew up hearing about the heroic acts and steadfast faith in the cause for equality of Blacks, the of the deaths of the Reverend Cordy Tindell Vivian and US Rep. John Robert Lewis (D-Ga) left many with avoid. These two men who were forever linked in the struggle for voting rights for black would be tied to their mentor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and what they accomplished on that faithful day in 1969 on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Their lives would forever be connected by decades of struggle, hardships, success, and the story of how they made it through would be a success in itself. They met long ago on the backdrop of the Jim Crow south amidst much racially tension and hatred for their very skin color. In the days of tiny television sets and black ribbon neckties and automobiles with fins stamped from sheet metal, they met long ago.
Around 1960, Vivian and Lewis were students together in Nashville under the tutelage of the Rev. James M. Lawson, one of history’s great apostles of nonviolent political action. Along with Diane Nash, another giant of the campaign for human dignity, they galvanized the Freedom Rides
Key to Lawson’s greatness was his honesty. He made it fiercely clear to students at his workshops that nonviolent black protest would bring out the Deep South’s worst. They would be attacked for sitting down, beaten for marching, murdered for registering black voters. The road to change passed through pain and even martyrdom.
Lewis and Vivian graduated from Lawson’s school on different, complementary paths. Vivian became one of the world great preachers of his — or any — generation. His oratory greatly admired by no less an authority than the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Vivian’s nonviolent protests landed him in the hellhole of Mississippi’s Parchman Farm, the ghastly state prison from which he emerged entirely intact with his vast dignity and integrity.
Lewis’s eloquence was more physical, more visceral. He left the Nashville training ready to die for civil rights. Not in some theoretical sense: prepared to die today, die tomorrow, die next week — whenever his sacrifice was needed to advance the causes of freedom and love.
Lewis would be beaten many times during his fight for civil rights. In Alabama, he was beaten nearly to death at a Montgomery bus station, smashed in the head with a wooden Coca-Cola crate. He was beaten almost to death on the Edmund Pettus, bridge in Selma. The world saw his grandeur on the evening news. His self-possessed suffering made fools and monsters of his foes.
Lewis would continue his fight for many years on a national stand when he ran to become a US Congressman. As a member of Congress from Georgia, Lewis proudly wore a starkly bald head that compelled respect like a carved idol. The bones of his skull were on frank display. Which ones took the brunt of that crate swung ferociously at the bus station in Montgomery? Did the club land that knocked him unconscious as he marched with King in Selma across the Edmund Pettus Bridge?
Over the years, many would study Lewis and his unyielding faith in the nonviolent movement. Some would even inquire of him how he steeled himself for such suffering — “How do you prepare mentally and spiritually to be nonviolent in response to what you know will be a violent attack?”
Lewis replied many times in his, gentle yet always authoritative tones, would become known as his hallmark. His voice, as old and soft as pine duff, invited agreement and made it impossible to disagree in good faith.
“You studied the way of peace. You studied the way of love,” he answered. “You studied the philosophy and the discipline of nonviolence. We had been taught” — by Lawson and King and by each other in the school of nonviolence — “never to hate or become bitter, never to lose the sense of hope. And in the process, you may get arrested a few times. You may be beaten and left bloody, left unconscious. In Montgomery, I was hit in the head with a wooden crate, and in Selma, I had a concussion on that bridge. I saw death: I thought I was going to die.
Vivian would continue to achieve many great feats he was a distinguished minister, an author and organizer. He started and helped fund many civil rights organizations. In 2012 he would return to one of the first civil right organization that helped lead civil rights fight. He served as the interim President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Lewis would later say of their resolve to continue to fight despite all they suffered “But you keep going”. This my friend may be the words for a new generation that we must continue, we must pick up the banner and fight never losing sight of what they have taught us. Let’s go out there and make some “Good Trouble” in the words of John Lewis for America.