Nashville and the Nation Mourn Civil Rights Icons John Lewis and C.T. Vivian

Rep John Lewis and Rev C. T. Vivian

Last Friday the world lost two freedom fighter giants who had much in common, including roots in Nashville. These two men each studied and fought for civil rights in Nashville in the late 1950s and 1960s. They were both students at the American Baptist Theological Seminary (now American Baptist College) where they committed themselves to using their soul power to fight for the freedom that had been denied them and their fellows for centuries under American apartheid. Each was awarded the nation’s highest honor by President Barack Obama. Within hours of each other, John Lewis (aged 80) and C.T. Vivian (aged 95) transitioned to meet their heavenly father.

John Lewis is arguably the most famous / best known of the two, although both were part of the “Big Six” main leaders of groups who organized the 1963 March on Washington, and close confidants of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  While Lewis was 15 years junior to Vivian, he was young, eager, scrappy, dedicated and a fearless warrior who said he wanted to get into “good trouble, necessary trouble to achieve change” and he did.

John Robert Lewis (born February 21, 1940) served in the United States House of Representatives for Georgia’s 5th congressional district from 1987 until his death this month. The district he represented includes the northern three-quarters of Atlanta. He was a leader of the Democratic Party in the House, first elected to Congress in 1986 and served for 17 terms, from 1991 as a Chief Deputy Whip and from 2003 as Senior Chief Deputy Whip, the dean of the Georgia congressional delegation.

Lewis graduated from the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee and was ordained as a Baptist minister. He then received a bachelor’s degree in religion and philosophy from Nashville’s Fisk University. As a student, he was dedicated to the civil rights movement. Lewis was invited to attend nonviolence workshops held at Clark Memorial United Methodist Church by the Rev. James Lawson and Rev. Kelly Miller Smith, Sr. There, Lewis and other students became dedicated adherents to the discipline and philosophy of nonviolence, which he practiced for the rest of his life.

He organized sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in Nashville and took part in many other civil rights activities as part of the Nashville Student Movement. The Nashville sit-in movement was responsible for the desegregation of lunch counters in downtown Nashville. Lewis was arrested and jailed many times in the nonviolent movement to desegregate the downtown area of the city. He was also instrumental in organizing bus boycotts and other nonviolent protests in the fight for voter and racial equality.

Lewis fulfilled many key roles in the civil rights movement and its actions to end legalized racial segregation in the United States. He served as the Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) from 1963 to 1966. In 1965, Lewis led the Selma to Montgomery marches across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. In an incident which became known as Bloody Sunday, March 7, armed Alabama police attacked unarmed civil rights demonstrators, including Lewis and Hosea Williams. Lewis was beaten so severely he suffered a skull fracture.

Lewis, a member of the Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, received many honorary degrees and awards. In 2011, President Barack Obama awarded Lewis the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He lost his battle with pancreatic cancer on Friday, July 17, 2020. He was preceded in death by his wife of nearly 50 years, Lillian Miles Lewis, in 2012; they had one son together, John-Miles Lewis.

Cordy Tindell “C.T.” Vivian (born July 30, 1924) was a minister, author, and close friend and lieutenant of Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement. Vivian resided in Atlanta, Georgia, and founded the C. T. Vivian Leadership Institute, Inc. He, like Martin, was a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity. Then-Senator Barack Obama, speaking at Selma’s Brown Chapel on the March 2007, anniversary of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches, recognized Vivian in his opening remarks in the words of Martin L. King Jr. as “the greatest preacher to ever live.”

Vivian had a strong religious upbringing and said he felt called to a life in ministry. With the help of his church, he enrolled in American Baptist Theological Seminary (ABT) in Nashville in 1955. Studying for the ministry at ABT (now American Baptist College) in Nashville, in 1959, Vivian met James Lawson, who was teaching Mohandas Gandhi’s nonviolent direct action strategy to the Nashville Student Movement. Soon Lawson’s students, including Diane Nash, Bernard Lafayette, James Bevel, John Lewis and others from American Baptist, Fisk University and Tennessee State University, organized a systematic nonviolent sit-in campaign at local lunch counters.

On April 19, 1960, 4,000 demonstrators peacefully walked to Nashville’s City Hall on the day of the Z. Alexander Looby bombing, where Vivian and Fisk University co-ed Diane Nash openly discussed the situation with Nashville Mayor Ben West. As a result, Mayor West publicly agreed that racial discrimination was morally wrong. Vivian helped found the Nashville Christian Leadership Conference, and helped organize the first sit-ins in Nashville in 1960 and the first civil rights march in 1961. In 1961, Vivian also participated in the Freedom Rides.

By 1965, Vivian had become the director of national affiliates for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. When he led a group of people to register to vote in Selma, Alabama, Sheriff Jim Clark blocked the group, and Vivian said in a fiery tone, “We will register to vote because as citizens of the United States we have the right to do it.” Clark responded by beating Vivian until blood dripped off his chin in front of rolling cameras. The images helped galvanize wider support for change.

During the summer following the Selma Voting Rights Movement, Vivian conceived and directed a college readiness program, Vision, and put 702 Alabama students in college with scholarships with the goal of helping “take care of the kids that were kicked out of school simply because they protested racism.” Years later, the US Department of Education used his Vision program as a guide to create Upward Bound, which was designed to improve high school and college graduation rates for students in underserved communities.

Vivian also created the National Anti-Klan Network In the late 1970s, an anti-racism organization that focused on monitoring the Ku Klux Klan. Soon after it was founded, the name and direction changed because “it was bigger than the Klan,” said Vivian. “We called it the Center for Democratic Renewal because the whole culture had to be renewed if it truly was going to be a democratic one.” Vivian said they viewed the Center For Democratic Renewal as “the political side” of what they were doing with the SCLC, which was focused on the country’s morality struggles during the civil rights movement.

President Barack Obama awarded Vivian the highest civilian honor in the nation, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 2013. Vivian, born in Boonville, Missouri, on July 30, 1924, had six children his late wife, Octavia Geans Vivian. He passed away at his Atlanta home of natural causes at age 95 on Friday, July 17, 2020.


President Barack Obama on John Lewis:

America is a constant work in progress. What gives each new generation purpose is to take up the unfinished work of the last and carry it further — to speak out for what’s right, to challenge an unjust status quo, and to imagine a better world.

John Lewis — one of the original Freedom Riders, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the youngest speaker at the March on Washington, leader of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Member of Congress representing the people of Georgia for 33 years — not only assumed that responsibility, he made it his life’s work. He loved this country so much that he risked his life and his blood so that it might live up to its promise. And through the decades, he not only gave all of himself to the cause of freedom and justice, but inspired generations that followed to try to live up to his example.

Considering his enormous impact on the history of this country, what always struck those who met John was his gentleness and humility. Born into modest means in the heart of the Jim Crow South, he understood that he was just one of a long line of heroes in the struggle for racial justice. Early on, he embraced the principles of nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience as the means to bring about real change in this country, understanding that such tactics had the power not only to change laws, but to change hearts and minds as well.

In so many ways, John’s life was exceptional. But he never believed that what he did was more than any citizen of this country might do. He believed that in all of us, there exists the capacity for great courage, a longing to do what’s right, a willingness to love all people, and to extend to them their God-given rights to dignity and respect. And it’s because he saw the best in all of us that he will continue, even in his passing, to serve as a beacon in that long journey towards a more perfect union.

I first met John when I was in law school, and I told him then that he was one of my heroes. Years later, when I was elected a U.S. Senator, I told him that I stood on his shoulders. When I was elected President of the United States, I hugged him on the inauguration stand before I was sworn in and told him I was only there because of the sacrifices he made. And through all those years, he never stopped providing wisdom and encouragement to me and Michelle and our family. We will miss him dearly.

It’s fitting that the last time John and I shared a public forum was at a virtual town hall with a gathering of young activists who were helping to lead this summer’s demonstrations in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Afterwards, I spoke to him privately, and he could not have been prouder of their efforts — of a new generation standing up for freedom and equality, a new generation intent on voting and protecting the right to vote, a new generation running for political office. I told him that all those young people — of every race, from every background and gender and sexual orientation — they were his children. They had learned from his example, even if they didn’t know it. They had understood through him what American citizenship requires, even if they had heard of his courage only through history books.

Not many of us get to live to see our own legacy play out in such a meaningful, remarkable way. John Lewis did. And thanks to him, we now all have our marching orders — to keep believing in the possibility of remaking this country we love until it lives up to its full promise.

Editor’s Note: Lewis had described attending Obama’s 2009 inauguration as an “out-of-body” experience.

“When we were organizing voter-registration drives, going on the Freedom Rides, sitting in, coming here to Washington for the first time, getting arrested, going to jail, being beaten, I never thought — I never dreamed — of the possibility that an African American would one day be elected president of the United States,” he said at the time.

American Baptist College President Forrest Harris on John Lewis:

How ironic that both Civil Rights Icons, Rev. Dr. C. T. Vivian and Congressman John Lewis passed on the same day. Our hearts are deeply saddened.

John Robert Lewis was a humble non-violent warrior for justice; a great human spirit that blessed this nation and entire world as one who became deeply committed to “Redeeming the soul of America.”

This giant of a man sacrificially gave of himself, to the very end of his life, fully to the cause of building a better America. Coming to Nashville at a young age as a student at American Baptist College, John Lewis was captured by the dream of a world of fairness and equality, ideals of the beloved community. Congressman Lewis has secured a prominent place in the history of America’s “profiles in courage.” He never quit, never allowed fear of death to stop him, hate to keep him from loving enemies to reach justice, fighting with every ounce of his humanity against the status quo of American racial injustice.

Beginning in Nashville integrating segregated lunch counters, integrating interstate travel on the Freedom Rides throughout the South, marching in the cradle of the Confederacy for voting rights, his body bloodied receiving the violent blows; John Lewis never quit, never stopped marching pursuing justice.

John Lewis spoke before Martin Luther King, Jr. on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial declaring love and non-violence, and he never ceased believing in what America could become. American Baptist College, his alma mater, along with the entire nation will miss hearing the voice of Congressman John Lewis on the floor of the Congress, but his immortal gifts to us will be unceasing for generations to come.

American Baptist College President Forrest Harris on The Reverend C. T. Vivian:

There is nothing within the canon of our collective vocabulary adequate to describe the significant contribution of the life of C.T. Vivian to America and the world. He wrote a narrative for justice with his life. A brilliant public intellectual and voice for justice, we here at American Baptist College, his alma mater, will miss C.T. Vivian and share the weight of his passing with his family and national network of friends who knew him at the level of his many sacrifices for justice in America.

We shall never forget his dedication to the vision of the beloved community. We thank God for his role in the Nashville student-led lunch counter sit-in movement that changed the city forever. He marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., was violently knocked down on the steps of the Dallas County Court House seeking the right to register to vote. Yet he got up bloodied but unbowed declaring the human rights of citizenship to vote.

As a recipient of the Medal of Freedom honor bestowed by President Barack Obama for his life of humanitarian service, C. T. Vivian will be remembered for the greatest medal any human being can receive, the medal of being a humble, faithful servant of God’s love and justice in the world.

The Rev. Al Sharpton on The Reverend C. T. Vivian:

“The passing of C.T. Vivian should cause us all to pause and celebrate the life and sacrifice of this giant. He made this nation and world a better place. RIP, my friend.”

Ellen Lehman of The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee:

“It is not often that many of us awaken two morning in a row to news of the loss of pillars of our community and country. But this has happened this week as we have lost C.T. Vivian and John Lewis, who have, together, kept the quest for equality and equity moving forward.  These stalwarts of Civil Rights both have strong ties to this community — through the leaders who taught them and the lessons they taught us. But for them we would not be making the great strides we are making today as we build a more perfect union … together.”