John Lewis, a towering figure from the civil rights movement, transitioned last Friday, and he shared that death day with another icon of the movement, Rev. Cordy Tindell (C. T.) Vivian, a fellow recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
It is somewhat fitting that they went out together because they shared significant space and time in the civil rights movement. Like Lewis, C. T. Vivian was arrested more times than he could readily count and suffered several brutal beatings at the hands of officers throughout the South.
In the late 1950s and the early 1960s, John Lewis and C. T. Vivian were students at American Baptist College and members of what has been called the “University of Nonviolence” taught by James Lawson. Lawson was a doctoral student at the Vanderbilt Divinity School and had studied Gandhi’s nonviolence in India.
Other students in the University of Nonviolence, facilitated by United Methodist pastor, Reverend Kelly Miller Smith, included James Bevel and Bernard Lafayette (seminary students at American Baptist College); and Diane Nash and Marion Berry (Fisk students)—all becoming essential figures in the Civil Rights Movement. This group became a crucial part of SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) when it formed in April of 1960. SNCC moved the civil rights movement into the streets.
Vivian, older than the others, had started his civil rights protests in Peoria, Illinois, where he organized some of the first sit-ins of the civil rights movement in the late 1940s. Vivian became a mentor to his fellow students in the movement, helping to lead the three-months long lunch-counter sit-in movement in Nashville in 1960, which included a march on city hall.
And like John Lewis, C. T. Vivian was a Freedom Rider and was beaten and jailed. Freedom Riders were black and white activists organized by CORE and SNCC who rode interstate buses into the segregated South in 1961 to challenge the non-enforcement of the U. S. Supreme Court ruling in 1960 that the segregation of interstate transportation facilities was unconstitutional.
John Lewis became chair of SNCC in 1963, the same year that C. T. Vivian joined Martin Luther King’s staff as director of affiliate branches of the SCLC.
As chair of SNCC, Lewis was one of the “big six” civil rights leaders. Consequently, he was one of the main speakers at the 1963 March on Washington. Fiery John Lewis had prepared a speech that included statements that could be used today.
Significantly, his prepared speech implicated the federal government in general and the Kennedy administration, in particular, in the problems that blacks faced. He delivered a good speech, but not that one, as the Civil Rights Leadership forced him to soften his remarks.
Here is a statement they made him change:
“In good conscience, we cannot support wholeheartedly the administration’s civil rights bill, for it is too little and too late. There’s not one thing in the bill that will protect our people from police brutality.”
They let him keep the following statement:
“In Albany, Georgia, nine of our leaders have been indicted not by Dixiecrats but by the federal government for peaceful protest. But what did the federal government do when Albany’s deputy sheriff beat attorney C. B. King and left him half dead? What did the federal government do when local police officials kicked and assaulted the pregnant wife of Slater King, and she lost her baby?”
But apparently, they had him remove these follow-on statements:
“It seems to me that the Albany indictment is part of a conspiracy on the part of the federal government and local politicians in the interest of expediency.
I want to know which side is the federal government on?”
John Lewis was mild only when compared to the two SNCC chairs that followed him—Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) and H. Rap Brown. May he and C.T. Vivian rest in well-deserved peace.