On Friday July 17, 2020, the US lost two giants of the civil rights movement: John Lewis and C.T. Vivian. Lewis led the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the 1960s, which organized sit-ins and Freedom Rides and played a significant role in both the 1963 March on Washington and the 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery. He later served as a member of the US House of Representatives from 1987 until his death. Vivian was a close advisor of Martin Luther King Jr. and served as his field general, helping to organize protest activities, train protesters in nonviolence, and coordinate voter registration. Both men had a major impact on civil rights activism of the 1960s and beyond, and their lives and legacies continue to influence civil rights advocacy and legislation today.
Born in rural Alabama in 1940 to sharecroppers, John Lewis grew up under Jim Crow segregation and attended segregated public schools. As a teenager, the 1955-1956 Montgomery bus boycott and radio broadcasts by Martin Luther King Jr. inspired Lewis to get involved with the emerging civil rights movement. He attended Fisk University, a historically black university in Nashville, where he first began organizing sit-ins at segregated lunch counters and participated in Freedom Rides, in which he risked his life to ride segregated interstate buses. On multiple occasions, he was beaten by angry mobs and arrested by the police for protesting the Jim Crow segregation laws of the South.
From 1963-1966, Lewis served as the chairman of SNCC, which organized student civil rights activism. These activities included sit-ins, Freedom Rides, voter registration drives, and marches. By 1963, Lewis, at just 23 years old, was already considered one of the “Big Six” leaders of the civil rights movement and helped organize the 1963 March on Washington, in which he was a keynote speaker.
On March 7, 1965, Lewis led over 600 peaceful protesters across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Intending to march the 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery, the marchers were attacked with clubs and tear gas by Alabama state troopers. The event, labeled “Bloody Sunday,” and the photographs and news coverage that ensued were significant catalysts for the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The law prohibits poll taxes, literacy tests, and other forms of racial discrimination in voting.
Lewis remained active in politics throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and in 1986, was elected to Congress as a representative of Georgia’s 5th congressional district, which includes almost three-fourths of Atlanta and several suburbs. As a member of the House, he served as the Senior Chief Deputy Whip for the Democratic Party, advocated for gay rights and national health insurance, and opposed cuts to welfare.
Throughout his career, Lewis has encouraged young people to get into “Good Trouble” by pushing to end injustices no matter the cost. He has been awarded over 50 honorary degrees from colleges and universities across the US, as well as several other prizes and awards. In 2011, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the US’ highest civilian honor, by President Obama.
C.T. Vivian was born in 1924 in Boonville, Missouri, and raised by his mother and grandmother in Macomb, Illinois. He first became involved in civil rights activism in the 1940s, when he helped organize a successful sit-in to end segregated lunch counters in Peoria, Illinois. In the late 1950s, he became a Baptist minister and continued to organize peaceful protest activities with the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC), including a 3-month sit-in in Nashville, TN.
In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. asked Vivian to work on the executive staff of the SCLC as the National Director of Affiliates. In this role, he oversaw 85 local affiliate chapters, leading voter registration drives and other community development projects. He also led protest activities, including sit-ins at lunch counters, boycotts of businesses, and marches lasting weeks or months.
Vivian was almost killed in 1964 while participating in a peaceful protest on a beach in St. Augustine, Florida, when a mob of whites attacked the protesters with chains and attempted to drown them. Like “Bloody Sunday,” images of the event were shocking to the national conscience and helped catalyze the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Vivian’s civil rights work continued after the 1960s. While serving as the dean of the Shaw University Divinity School, he founded the Black Action Strategies and Information Center in Atlanta, which focused on workplace race relations, and the National Anti-Klan Network (later renamed the Center for Democratic Renewal) to monitor hate groups. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama in 2013.
The contributions of John Lewis and C.T. Vivian in the fight for racial equality have left a major mark on American society. In recent months, Lewis’ core principle of “Good Trouble” has guided the youth-led protests that have emerged in response to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. With somewhere between 15 million and 25 million participants, it has become the largest protest movement in American history.
The legacies of Lewis and Vivian also continue to shape legislation. On Monday, the House approved a proposal from Majority Whip Rep. Jim Clyburn to rename legislation to restore the 1965 Voting Rights Act in honor of Lewis. The bill, now titled the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act, would give federal agencies more oversight over local and state officials in an attempt to crack down on voter suppression.
As the fight for racial justice continues both in the halls of Congress and the streets, the work of C.T. Vivian and John Lewis will continue to provide the wisdom and inspiration to keep fighting. As Lewis said at his last public appearance at Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, D.C.: “You must be able and prepared to give until you cannot give any more. We must use our time and our space on this little planet that we call Earth to make a lasting contribution, to leave it a little better than we found it, and now that need is greater than ever before.”