On Friday, July 17 two giants of the Civil Rights Movement and of U. S. history died. While many others far better qualified than me will write and speak their eulogies, I want to share what C. T. Vivian and John Lewis meant to me. I was deeply saddened by the news of their deaths, and yet it is fitting that they are eulogized together.
In 1959 C.T. Vivian was a pastor in Nashville, Tennessee when in the basement of Vivian’s church James Lawson began teaching a group of students from American Baptist College the principles and teachings of Mohandas Gandhi’s nonviolent approach to social action and social change. In that group was 19-year old John Lewis, along with other future Civil Rights leaders like Diane Nash, James Bevel, and Bernard Lafayette. On February 1, 1960, four young men, students at Greensboro A & T, sat down at the lunch counter in the local Woolworth asking to be served and started the lunch counter protest movement. John Lewis and the others joined that movement and Nashville became its center. C.T. Vivian supported and joined their activism. Vivian went on to become a leader in Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Both Vivian and Lewis took part in the Freedom Rides thru the South; Lewis experienced the first of many beatings he endured thru the 1960’s movement.. Lewis went on to co-found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and help lead the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.
I never met either C.T. Vivian or John Lewis, but they have both have had an impact on my life in profound and practical ways In 2014 I was looking for someone to write a Foreword to my book White Allies in the Struggle of Racial Justice. I was able to get Rev. Vivian’s phone number from my colleague Dr. Todd Allen (now at Messiah College) and cold-called him and he agreed to write the Foreword. He was experiencing some short term memory problems at the time, and so it took a few more phone calls, but with the help of his daughters, he was able to write the Foreword. I have been forever grateful to the Vivian family and to Rev. Vivian for their graciousness in that matter. He was a great and courageous nonviolent crusader for the cause of racial justice throughout his life, but a kind and generous person to all, including me.
John Lewis has been my hero for a long time. In 2012 my wife and I went on a Civil Rights Bus Tour organized by Dr. Todd Allen and stopped in Atlanta where Rep. Lewis lived. There was a chance he might stop by to say hello, but he was unable to meet with our group. Even so, as I learned about the career of John Lewis and read his autobiography Walking with the Wind, I became enamored with the life of this Alabama farm boy who used to preach to the chickens, who one day introduced himself to Dr. King and eventually became a national civil rights leader. He was known later in life as the “conscience of the Congress.” In 2016 he led a sit-down protest in Congress to call for a vote on gun control legislation. Just a few weeks ago, I saw him in a television interview encouraging protestors to act in responsible, nonviolent ways.
I admired the courage and the principled nature of John Lewis. Throughout his career he continued to advocate for racial justice and the power and effectiveness of nonviolence for bringing about that change. Most protestors today don’t appreciate the depth of the nonviolent philosophy practiced and preached by John Lewis. For me, he was a leading example of a man who lived his life for the good of others and a model for living out the principles of Jesus in the public square.
So July 17 has now become of a day of remembrance of these two great men, C.T. Vivian and John Lewis, who touched and shaped my life in ways they will never know. They will be missed by thousands of people; I will miss them and seek to honor them going forward.