Rep. John Lewis and Rev. C.T. Vivian, pillars of the Civil Rights movement

Herb Boyd | 7/19/2020, 9:48 a.m.
Within hours of each other and not too far apart in Atlanta, two pillars of the civil rights movement joined ...
Congressman John Lewis (left) and Rev. C.T. Vivian U.S. Congress photo/White House/public domain photo

For more than a half century Vivian was on the battlefield for justice and equality, later becoming the director of the Urban Training Center for Christian Mission in Chicago in 1966 and dean of the Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, N.C. in 1972. Among several organizations he founded or co-founded was the National Anti-Klan Network that monitored hate groups. In 1984 the Rev. Jesse Jackson retained his clergy services during his presidential bid. He was the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2013.

His marriage to Jane Teague ended in divorce and they had one daughter, Jo Anna Walker. He married Octavia Geans in 1952 and they had two daughters. There were three other children he fathered.

If after the halcyon days of the civil rights movement Vivian was no longer in the spotlight, such was not the case with Lewis, mostly because of his long career in Congress.

Lewis was born on Feb. 21, 1940 near Troy, Alabama on a sharecropping farm worked by his parents Eddie and Willie Mae (Carter). When the family purchased their own farm, Lewis, the third of 10 children, joined his siblings picking cotton, shucking corn, and shaking peanuts from the vines. Lewis’s primary task was to watch over the chickens. In his memoir Walking with the Wind (1998), he recounted how his first congregation were the chickens. For his sermons to the chickens he was called the “Preacher.” That talent was honed by his listening to Dr. King on the radio and reading about the boycott in Montgomery. A letter to King in 1958 was rewarded with a round-trip bus ticket to visit his idol in Montgomery, a year before he began studying with Vivian and Rev. Lawson.

Like Vivian, Lewis enrolled at American Baptist College, then a theological seminary, working as a dishwasher and janitor to pay his tuition. In Nashville he was soon in the company of James Bevel and Diane Nash, both of whom would become noted civil rights icons. A year after Lawson’s indoctrination, Lewis was arrested for the first time in 1960 after he and other students demanded to be served at a whites-only restaurant. This launched an extended battle of desegregation by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (Snick).

Soon Lewis had seriously violated his parents’ edict not to cause trouble, but he found it difficult to ignore the courage and commitment of Rosa Parks, Dr. King, and others involved in the fight against discrimination. He made “getting into trouble” his watchwords.

From the sit-ins, after graduation, Lewis joined the Freedom Riders, organized by CORE (Congress of Racial Equality). Thus began the beatings and bludgeons by white racists, intent of terrifying the freedom riders but Lewis retained a nonviolent philosophy, even as others were beginning to question the tactics, ready and willing to fight back.

A highpoint of Lewis’s career and a moment well documented occurred at the March on Washington in 1963. As the leader of Snick, he was among the guest speakers at the march and was forced to tamp down his militant speech, which he rewrote with the help of his colleagues, including James Forman and Courtland Cox. His philosophy became increasingly unpopular in urban America then seething riots and rebellions and urged on by the call for Black Power that was launched by Lewis’ successor at the helm of Snick, Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture).