Monday, July 20, 2020
C. T. Vivian (1924-2020); John Lewis (1940-2020): R.I.P.
Cordy Tindell Vivian was born in Boonville, Missouri on July 30, 1924. His family moved to Illinois. He encountered segregation in Peoria, Illinois. He started a successful sit-in to desegregate lunch counters years before the Montgomery Bus Boycott He quickly joined MLK’s inner circle of advisors. He served as National Advisor of affiliates for Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). He was interim director of SCLC in 2012. He was an organizer of the Freedom Rides. John Lewis, Diane Nash and he led the successful effort to desegregate Nashville. The enlightened Mayor agreed with them that segregation was immoral. Both John Lewis and he had their confrontations with Selma’s (Dallas County) vicious Sheriff Jim Clark. The Reverend led 100 marchers to the courthouse steps in a voter registration drive. He asked Sheriff Clark to let the marchers enter the Selma courthouse to escape a light rain. He said to Sheriff Clark: “You can turn your back now and you can keep your club in hour 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.” The Sheriff’s response, captured live on national TV, was a roundhouse blow to Reverend Vivian’s face. John Lewis and C.T. Vivian, as well as the other Civil Rights leaders, knew their lives were at risk daily. They were prepared to die for the cause. Reverend Vivian said: “Going to Mississippi in 1961 was a whole different world. You knew you could be killed there.” Reverend Vivian led scores of sit-ins, marches, and demonstrations. He was incarcerated in 1960 in the Hinds County (Jackson, Mississippi) Penal Farm, wherein several guards viciously beat him. He almost drowned in St. Augustine, Florida at the hands of a racist mob in 1964. He created a predecessor to Upward Bound, providing scholarships to hundreds of students. He founded institutes and centers to advance civil rights and fight the KKK. He led a campaign to save Morris Brown College, a historic black college, in Atlanta Reverend Vivian was a strong advocate of non-violence. Too bad today’s violent mobs don’t heed his words: “Nonviolence is the only honorable way of dealing with social change, because if we are wrong, nobody gets hurt but us. And if we are right, more people will participate in determining their own destinies than ever before.” He also said in a 2012 interview: “Nonviolent, direct action makes us successful. We learned to solve social problems without violence. We cannot allow the nation or the world to ever forget that.” Both Reverend Vivian and Representative Lewis spent their lives advancing civil rights and equal opportunity. They go back together over 60 years to Nashville. They worked together; they worked concurrently; they worked separately, but always with a common goal of promoting equal rights. Representative Lewis was more of the public face than the Reverend, who acted more in the private arena, but who scores of times led sit-ins, boycotts, marches and demonstrations. Both were arrested s cores of times. John Lewis is the better known of the two civil rights leaders. Representative Lewis entered the political arena, serving in Congress for 34 years. He co-founded and led the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which staged sit-ins throughout the country. The young John Lewis quickly became one of the “Big Six” organizers of the 1963 March on Washington. The March is best known for Martin Luther King’s great I Have A Dream Speech. The 23 year old John Lewis also spoke. His speech had a different tone: “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. We must say ‘Wake up America, Wake up! For we cannot stop, and we will not and cannot be patient.” John Lewis outlived the other five, Martin Luther Kings, Jr., A Philip Randolph, James Farmer, Whitney Young, and Roy Wilkens. Many heroes, including martyrs, emerged from the struggles. John Lewis became the living symbol of the Civil Rights Movement, a national treasure if you would. He earned it with his blood. He was one of the original 13 Freedom Riders. Governor John Patterson and Montgomery Police Commissioner L.B. Sullivan (the same L.B. Sullivan who claimed libel in in New York Times v. Sullivan) had promised the safety of the Freedom Riders when they arrived in Montgomery. Colonel Floyd Mann, who headed the Alabama State Patrol, did not believe them, but the state troopers lacked jurisdiction in the city. The riders arrived at the Greyhound Bus Station in Montgomery, Alabama not to police security but to a KKK mob. John Lewis was knocked unconscious. Another, Jim Zweig, was almost killed when Colonel Mann intervened with the state troopers. Colonel Mann is also credited with saving the lives of John Lewis and William Barbee. The riders lived to fight another day. He said of the Greyhound Bus Station attack: “It was very violent. Thought I was going to die. I was left lying at the Greyhound Bus Station in Montgomery unconscious.” Reverend Vivian was severely beaten in Mississippi on a Freedom ride. John Lewis was in the lead in the first Selma-Montgomery Voting Rights March. He was one of the first attacked by Sheriff Clark’s deputized mob on the Norman Pettus Bridge on. John Lewis’ skull was fractured on March 7, 1965. Bloody Sunday was the spark that directly led to enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Representative Lewis later said: The troopers came towards us, beating us with whips, nightsticks. I was the first to be hit. Knocked down. My knees went out from under me. I thought I saw death. I thought I was going to die on that bridge.” He was appalled at the killing of George Floyd, but stated “We all live in the same house, not just the American house, but the world house.” John Lewis, a victim of violence, remained an advocate of non-violent protests. Both moved to Atlanta to continue their work. Both Reverend Vivian and Representative Lewis received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama. Ironically, both C.T. Vivian and John Lewis died on the same day, July 17, 2020, just as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, the 50th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. C.T. Vivian John Lewis Two great Americans, who defied violence, instrumental in changing the course of America.