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John Lewis and C.T. Vivian were radical American heroes | Column
The two men held a deep, philosophical belief in nonviolence, but it would be a mistake to turn their legacy into something warm and bland, devoid of its powerful meaning, writes a professor of history.
Rep. John Lewis, the sharecroppers' son who became a giant of the civil rights movement, died Friday after a months-long battle with cancer. He was 80. Here, Lewis is seen near the statue of Dr. Martin Luther King,Jr., in the Capitol Rotunda before a memorial service for the late Rep. Elijah Cummings in Statuary Hall.
Rep. John Lewis, the sharecroppers' son who became a giant of the civil rights movement, died Friday after a months-long battle with cancer. He was 80. Here, Lewis is seen near the statue of Dr. Martin Luther King,Jr., in the Capitol Rotunda before a memorial service for the late Rep. Elijah Cummings in Statuary Hall. [ TOM WILLIAMS | ZUMAPRESS.com ]
Published Jul. 21, 2020

The nation lost two of its greatest heroes within hours of each other. We mourn the passing of Congressman John Lewis and the Rev. C.T. Vivian, but unless we understand their historical legacy, eulogies honoring them will ring hollow.

Steven Lawson
Steven Lawson

In the late 1950s and 1960s, Vivian and Lewis crossed paths on many occasions in struggling for freedom rights. As ministerial students at Nashville’s American Baptist seminary in 1959, they learned first-hand the theory of disciplined nonviolent protest and put it into practice during the 1960 lunch counter sit-ins. A year later, both became freedom riders and helped integrated bus terminals throughout the South. Each man went to jail then and on numerous other occasions in the struggle against white supremacy.

Lewis became chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which organized against Jim Crow in the most resistant towns of the South. Vivian joined Martin Luther King Jr.‘s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), founded by black ministers following the 1955-56 Montgomery bus boycott. Though the two groups differed in structure and attitudes toward leadership, they joined together in nonviolent campaigns to show the country and the world the brutality of white supremacy. Their combined efforts led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the first of the signal legislation seeking to advance racial equality in the United States.

Lewis and Vivian held a deep, philosophical belief in nonviolence, but it would be a mistake to turn their legacy into something warm and bland, devoid of its powerful meaning. Like King, Lewis and Vivian were authentic radicals. In the same 1963 March on Washington where King said America has given its black people “a bad check, a check that has come back marked insufficient funds,” Lewis declared, “Let us not forget that we are involved in a serious social revolution. By and large, American politics is dominated by politicians who build their careers on immoral compromises and ally themselves…political, economic, and social exploitation.”

Two years later in 1965, Lewis and Vivian joined together in the historic voting rights drive in Selma, Alabama. Lewis was brutally beaten by state troopers, and Vivien stood up to Sheriff Jim Clark, who believed black lives did not matter. As captured so vividly in the documentary film series Eyes on the Prize,”the fearless Vivian lectured Clark on the meaning of democracy and compared racism to fascism. In response, Clark punched him in the face. The sheriff, however, could not block passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which made black votes count in the South for the first time since Reconstruction.

John Lewis and C.T. Vivien were gentlemen and gentle men who had a radical sense of what America ought to be and courageously fought to achieve it. They viewed racism not merely as the reflection of individual prejudice but the result of deep-seated, systemic, inequities embedded in the economy, culture, law enforcement, education, and housing. We can name schools after Lewis and Vivian and erect monuments to them, but we best honor their legacy by dismantling the structural foundation of white supremacy. We can start with resisting voter suppression tactics and support Senate passage of pending voting rights legislation, a constitutional right for which both men valiantly fought.

Steven F. Lawson is professor emeritus of history, Rutgers University, and co-author of “Exploring American Histories.”

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