By Vincent L. Hall
History has a way of enveloping lives and legacies. How we live our lives has a direct bearing on what history has to say about us. United States Representative John Lewis and lifelong activist Reverend Cordy Tindell (C.T.) Vivian left more than we can say grace over. The fact that the two men died so closely is enriched by the reality that their sojourns were even more closely aligned. Ernie Suggs of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution painted the portrait of their tethering. “In 1963, they were famously arrested and sent to one of the most brutal prisons in Mississippi for daring to use a “Whites-Only” bathroom. In 1965 in Selma, they were each brutally beaten just a month apart while trying to register Black voters and bring attention to the generational plight of disenfranchised Blacks. And on July 24th, the Rev. C.T. Vivian and Congressman John Lewis died within hours of each other. “They walked together, talked together and strategized together,” Willie A. Watkins said. “They took the beatings that others didn’t and survived unafraid. God took them at the ages of 95 and 80. And now here they are in the same room—together!”
C.T. Vivian, who was once called the “greatest preacher to ever live” by his cohort, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was on the road to legacy early. At age 23, on his first professional job, he began a litany of civil rights actions worthy of being chronicled. The target in 1947 was to sit-in at Barton’s Cafeteria in Peoria, Illinois. By 1960, Vivian had teamed up with future leaders at Nashville’s American Baptist College to convince the city that its racial policies were wrongheaded. Flanked by Diane Nash, Bernard Lafayette, James Bevel, James Forman, and John Lewis; they were successful in getting the mayor to issue a public statement admitting that racial discrimination was a moral failing. In a book, he would later write, Black Power and the American Myth, Vivian expounded on the strength of Dr. King’s strategy. “It was Martin Luther King who removed the Black struggle from the economic realm and placed it in a moral and spiritual context,” Vivian wrote in his book. “It was on this plane that The Movement first confronted the conscience of the nation.”
John Lewis is widely known for the beating that he suffered on Bloody Sunday. He was one of the worst among 58 people treated for injuries after police were unleashed on Montgomery, Alabama’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. However, historians will note that Lewis spent his life beating up on racism, sexism, ignorance, and hatred. In 1961, Lewis was one of 13 Freedom Riders who were assaulted four years before Bloody Sunday. On May 9, in Rock Hill, South Carolina, Lewis was beaten viciously. One of the Klansmen later admitted what happened. “The bus pulled in. He (Lewis) got out and started over there to the door,” said former Klansman Elwin Wilson in 2010, adding that he started beating Lewis when he opened the door to a “Whites-Only” waiting room. “I remember him laying there, and it was blood on the ground, and somebody done called the police.” In 2009, Wilson found Lewis and apologized. Lewis accepted it.
This 1961 picture that shows both Lewis and Vivian jailed at the same venue was a prophetic foretelling of their paralleled existences. Both would go on to receive the Presidential Medal of Honor. Both of them would die within hours and be buried within days of one another. History has a way of enveloping lives and legacies, and there is more of Lewis and Vivian than these dedicated column inches will allow me to say.