America has lost two giants in the ongoing civil rights struggle. On July 17, 2020, both Rev. C.T. Vivian and Congressman John Lewis were called home. Both men served alongside Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s and helped lay the foundation for civil rights successes of which millions of Americans have been the beneficiaries. These men dedicated their lives for the service of others. These men also risked their lives at various points in time for the larger causes of racial (and economic) advancement.
Rev. Cordy Tindell “C.T.” Vivian was born in Boonville, MO in 1924 and participated in sit-in demonstrations which successfully integrated Barton’s Cafeteria in 1947. Vivian also 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. A year later, Vivian participated in Freedom Rides where he worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr. In 1970 Vivian also wrote “Black Power and the American Myth,” a must read to help us understand the past but also this current political moment. Vivian had numerous accomplishments, and when Pres. Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013, the press release stated, “Vivian also helped found numerous civil rights organizations, including Vision, the National Anti-Klan Network, and the Center for Democratic Renewal.”
Rev. Vivian worked very closely with his friend Rep. John Lewis over the years. Most people know of John Lewis’s bravery as a young activist being brutally beaten on “Bloody Sunday” trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, AL. In addition to organizing sit-in demonstrations in Tennessee, Lewis also served as the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) from 1963 to 1966. Lewis then went on to have a career first as a member of Atlanta’s city council and then as a representative for Georgia’s 5th congressional district from 1987 until his death. In 2011, Pres. Obama awarded Rep. Lewis with the Presidential Medal of Freedom calling him the “conscience of the United States Congress.”
Both men will be sorely missed. They served as a bridge for younger generations to better understand the depth of the Civil Rights Movement, organizing, coalition building, and strategy. Both men were recognized as American patriots by many, but sadly not by all. Their efforts to increase equity were accomplished by their diligence in the political space at the highest levels of government.
C.T. Vivian and John Lewis had an unwavering commitment to Black people and to making America live up to her promise. Both men worked tirelessly and will be remembered beyond their relationship with Dr. King. My hope is that we honor their legacies by continuing to work on behalf of racial equity and causing good trouble whenever we can.
Christina Greer, Ph.D., is an associate professor at Fordham University, the author of “Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration, and the Pursuit of the American Dream,” and the co-host of the podcast FAQ-NYC.