The Honorable Rev. John Robert Lewis
(February 21, 1940 – July 17, 2020)
The Reverend Dr. Cordy Tindell “C.T.” Vivian
(July 30, 1924 – July 17, 2020)
Today, we celebrate two men of moral courage, ethical excellence, and relentless diligence in making Black Lives Matter in the policies and practices of this country and world: The Honorable John Lewis and The Reverend C.T. Vivian.
Our heroes are transitioning and entrusting us to continue the work.
In 2003, Rev. Dr. C.T. Vivian hired me as Executive Director at the National Center for Human Rights Education (NCHRE) once I left the public interest law firm, Southern Center for Human Rights. He believed in me at a time in my life when I really was not sure that I could do all they entrusted me to do. I was 30 and only a few years out of seminary and law school. At NCHRE, Rev. Vivian was the chair of the board and taught me so much about dignity, humility, and caring-with-people as central to ministry, community organizing, justice, and human rights. I used to ask questions so I could listen until he got tired of talking. We didn’t always agree, but I will appreciate him forever.
Likewise, I remember when Congressman John Lewis came out to Los Angeles and Nashville to spend time with many BLM organizers. He encouraged our work. He always supported our work. He pushed back against the narrative of respectability in the civil rights movement. Public opinion was not on their side. They were called interlopers, carpetbaggers, and “disruptors” — among much more vicious pejoratives. Lewis and other activists fought and disrupted EVERYTHING! Had they not disrupted traffic, commerce, business as usual, they couldn’t have disrupted white supremacy. BUT THEY DID!
In response to critiques of BLM’s freeway shutdowns, Lewis said:
“What do you think happened with the march on Edmund Pettus Bridge?”
THEY DISRUPTED the status quo!
They didn’t beat him because he was passive. They tried to beat him to death because he was a threat! They didn’t win then. They won’t win now.
WHEN WE FIGHT, WE WIN!
Like many of us, C.T. Vivian and John Lewis participated in a movement — a protest — and it changed their lives forever.
Oh, you remember the footage….
C.T. Vivian, in a clerical collar and dark suit, led eloquently attired Black folks to vote at a Selma, Alabama government building guarded by state law enforcement officers with full riot gear and clubs in hand. There, on the steps of the Dallas County courthouse in February 1965, Rev. Vivian confronted a segregationist sheriff who blocked their path into the building. So, Vivian used the moment as an opportunity for a sermon on democracy and justice. In it, he said, “You can turn your back on me, but you cannot turn your back upon the idea of justice. You can turn your back now and you can keep the 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.” Clark responded to Vivian with a punch in the mouth, knocking him to the ground. Vivian pulled himself to his feet and kept lecturing as police shoved him aside and ultimately arrested him.
Just weeks after the incident aired on national television, thousands of people gathered for the famous march from Selma to Montgomery. Before the year was out, as a result, Congress had passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Rev. Vivian received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his work in 2013. But in an interview recorded for the honor, Vivian reiterated his call to action, saying that the work for racial and social justice was far from finished.
Oh, maybe you remember the Selma march? Lewis were there. You must remember that footage….
At the Edmund Pettus bridge (a name that lives in infamy; soon to be renamed for Lewis) — rabid, barbaric, and venomous racist state troopers blocked and viciously attacked the demonstrators. Then and there, the state law enforcement officers kicked and beat him with clubs. John Lewis, at 25 years old, was an organizer of that march for voting rights in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965. Law enforcement brutalized and left him for dead — like cops continue to do!
Black Lives Mattered when John Lewis was a little boy growing up in rural Alabama, but you wouldn’t know it by the way they…
Lynched Black boys like him,
Hosed Black freedom fighters,
Beat, raped, and maimed our Ancestors.
BUT THEY COULD NOT AND CANNOT STOP OUR PROGRESS
…Not our Movement–not our FREEDOM!
We’re winning because we’re building on the strategies of our ancestral abolitionists. For C.T. Vivian and John Lewis, a jail cell was as familiar as a police officer’s baton. Calling media attention to that systemic abuse was crucial to changing public opinion globally. These architects of democracy received scorn and ridicule but they stood resolved for justice.
For their human rights work, cops arrested and brutalized these activist ministers more times than they cared to count. For their democratic service, cops imprisoned and tortured them along with other CORE/SNCC protesters and imprisoned them at concentration camps, like Parchman Prison Farm.
They were warriors. They converted prisons and jails into colleges and universities. They were courageous and bold in their conviction that God was on their side — even when many folks said otherwise. They refused to give up. They continued after it was no longer trendy. Why? Because they joined a Sacred and Divine movement — not just a civil rights movement — but a human rights movement that started when Africa’s children were being stolen from its shores. Asserting dignity, they took a despised position and implemented multiple controversial strategies that improved our society and world.
C.T. Vivian and John Lewis joined and furthered a movement — not a moment.
They joined the movement Mama Harriett carried in her bosom through the dangerous woods of the underground railroad.
They joined the movement Mama Ida B. Wells furthered in challenging state sanctioned lynching violence against Black people.
They joined the movement that Babas Martin and MALCOLM fortified with speeches and writings that continue to shake philosophical and political debates.
They joined the movement because of teachers who were organizing — like Mama Ella Baker, who taught both CT Vivian AND John Lewis. Ella Baker, without whom none of us may know the men we honor today, helped them and their comrades maintain strategic momentum even when they differed on priorities and tactics. Never underestimate the difference one ordinary person can make!
We could go on and on listing historical benchmarks/heroes, but in the interest of time, let us remember…
We are part of a continuum that is greater than any hate. LOVE conquers hate. We stand in LOVE for ourselves and our community. We fight as lovers of JUSTICE and HUMAN RIGHTS. WE fight out of LOVE to protect other young people from having to experience a club to the head or a bullet to the back.
Our great Ancestors, The Honorable John Lewis and The Reverend C.T. Vivian are waiting for us (you) to ACT.
C.T. Vivian and John Lewis’ work didn’t start on “Bloody Sunday.” For years earlier, they worked as preachers and community organizers. With organizers like Septima Clark, Myles Horton, and Dr. King, Reverends Vivian and Lewis studied and trained organizers at the historic Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. They were the preachers that folks called “trouble-makers” and “radicals.” Each had a long record of human rights activism that included dozens of arrests during protests against racial and social injustice.
John Lewis said, “We do not want our freedom gradually; we want to be free now,” as a keynote speaker at the historic 1963 March on Washington. He had that opportunity because for many years prior he studied and apprenticed within the human rights advocacy of his Ancestors and elders. He went door-to-door, canvassing Black communities that stretched for many miles to educate our people about their human rights. Civil and political rights were important for Lewis, but he also spoke to the need for economic, cultural, and social justice.
Like Lewis, C.T. Vivian was also part of the Freedom Riders — activists who rode through southern states to make sure bus terminals and other public facilities were not segregated. Vivian, however, had been in justice actions since his first nonviolent protest in 1947 — a lunch counter sit-in in Peoria, Illinois. Later, he joined with other ministers and founded the Nashville affiliate of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which helped organize sit-ins and civil rights marches. He’s most well known for saying, “Do what you can do and do it well, but always ask your question: Is it serving people?”
These courageous human beings, now among our greatest Ancestors, disrupted the status quo — commerce/business-as-usual — FOR YEARS before anyone took notice. They were attacked, despised, and criticized relentlessly by mainstream society and their own people, but they persisted. Only in their latter years did they receive honor commensurate with their titanic contributions.
Perseverance, tenacity, and determination (among other things) in this struggle link us to them. None of us is free until all of us are free, so we commit daily to the work of making Black Lives Matter in policy and practice knowing our struggle for justice is a part of the same continuum of human rights struggle led by those before us.
HERE’S WHAT WE’VE DONE AND CONTINUE TO DO to further the legacy of our ancestral freedom fighters…to continue the work of abolition!
However, to attempt to measure our “wins” solely in terms of electoral victories, legal processes, legislation, public policy, or service numbers is, in effect, to submit to the existing hegemony that we seek to transform and to miss the whole point.
Our victories cannot be confined to quantitative measures. Like those upon whose shoulders we stand, our wins are much greater than the small buckets in which they seek to place us. In the last seven years, we have:
This is not an exhaustive list and there is so much more to do. We have not done it alone and we are not the first to lift up the mantle of Black freedom struggle. There have been many missteps and mistakes along the way. It is important, though, that we take inventory of the ways in which our work is transforming the world and ourselves.
As organizations slide in on policy, expand, gain recognition, get funding, and collaborate with existing systems, we cannot lose sight of who and what we are. Black Lives Matter is our sacred duty that honors those who walked before us; it is not our job. It is the freedom dreams of our Ancestors, not a policy outcome. It is the collective purpose of our people, rather than a campaign. Black Lives Matter is a MOVEMENT NOT A MOMENT.
NOW’s where we need you! The movement needs you!
Now, it is our turn. Our responsibility. Our opportunity.
One protest, one movement, one life can change the world. How will you continue this work? How will your life’s work reflect that Black Lives Matter?
WHEN WE FIGHT, WE WIN!
Thank you, Rev. John Lewis and Rev. C.T. Vivian, for being freedom fighters . Thank you for not relenting when folks attacked you. Thank you for not kowtowing to power, position, and prestige. Thank you for your service to our community, country, and world. We’re winning.
JUSTICE CANNOT BE STOPPED.
JUSTICE CANNOT BE KILLED.
JUSTICE CANNOT BE LYNCHED.
LIKE THEN, THEY CAN TRY TO BEAT THE LIFE OUT OF JUSTICE — and
LIKE THEN, WE WILL CONTINUE TO GET UP!
Now, what will you do??
Come, on! Get up!
Get up, Mothers…
Get up, Fathers…
Get up, Daughters…
Get up, Sons….
We’ve got work to do.
Rev. C.T. Vivian