Congressman John R. Lewis and his contemporary civil rights activist Rev. Cordy Tindell Vivian both passed away on the same day last Friday.
Lewis was 80, Vivian was 95.
These American icons spent the majority of their lives in the service of helping to change how black Americans were treated, fighting against injustice perpetuated both by explicit government policy and through the persistent problem of racism.
Lewis and Vivian were bound together through their significant commitment to the civil rights movement in the late 20th century as allies and colleagues of Martin Luther King, Jr., and were totally committed to the quest of pushing America to live up to its founding principles through nonviolent means.
Although both men were from other areas of the rural South and were 15 years apart in age, they both attended American Baptist College and Seminary in Nashville, and resided in the Atlanta area when they died.
Lewis, who served as the chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee from 1963 to 1966, went on to serve for more than three decades in the House of Representatives.
In his 1963 speech at the March on Washington, Lewis appealed to all Americans to: “Get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes, until the Revolution of 1776 is complete. … By the force of our demands, our determination and our numbers, we shall splinter the segregated South into a thousand pieces and put them together in the image of God and democracy.”
Lewis recognized that the American experiment, though started by flawed men with an incomplete dedication to the equality of all people under the law, was one worth preserving and perfecting.
Likewise, Vivian, who was a close friend and adviser to Martin Luther King Jr., was not afraid of confronting racists and segregationists with American values.
In 1965, while working to register black voters in Alabama, Vivian confronted the racist sheriff Jim Clark. “You can turn your back now and you can keep your club in your hand, but you cannot beat down justice. And we will register to vote because as citizens of these United States we have the right to do it,” Vivian said, before being punched in the face by the sheriff.
Ultimately, justice prevailed and America is a better place because of the efforts of people like John Lewis and C.T. Vivian. The America of today still has its problems and still has its inequities to rectify.
But the America of today is much more in keeping with the founding principles of equality and respect for individuals irrespective of their backgrounds than was the case in the 1960s.
Lewis and Vivian passing away on the same day is reminiscent of the coincidental passing of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson on the same day back in 1826, on July 4. These men, though separated by time and application of their shared values, are all part of America’s gradual fulfilling of its promise.
We can all honor the legacy of John Lewis and C.T. Vivian by recognizing and speaking out against injustice where we see it and by always seeking nonviolent solutions to frustrating problems and not losing sight of what America stands for.
The Orange County Register