Vivian, undeterred, got back on his feet and, before being hauled off to jail, continued his nonviolent quest. That effort continued for a long, long time.
It is fully fitting that, as America changed, Vivian was honored for his work.
In this file photo, former U.S. President Barack Obama awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to civil rights leader Rev. Cordy Tindell 'C.T.' Vivian in the East Room at the White House on Nov. 20, 2013 in Washington, D.C. Vivian died at 3 a.m. on July 17, 2020. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT)
In 2013, while awarding him the nation’s highest civilian accolade, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, President Barack Obama said, “Time and again, Rev. Vivian was among the first to be in the action. In 1947, joining a sit-in to integrate an Illinois restaurant; one of the first Freedom Riders; … helping kids go to college with a program that would become Upward Bound. And at 89 years old, Rev. Vivian is still out there, still in the action, pushing us closer to our founding ideals.”
John Lewis knew a lot about those founding ideals.
He devoted his life’s work to helping America move closer to achieving them. The son of Alabama sharecroppers, Lewis journeyed from farm fields to the U.S. Congress, where he fought as passionately for what he believed in as he had during his work in the civil rights movement.
Lewis recalled hearing the voice of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the radio not long after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling. It seemed as if King “was speaking directly to me,” Lewis recalled. “I felt like he was saying, ‘John Lewis, you can do it. You can make a difference in the struggle to defend the dignity of all humankind.‘’'
After writing King, the minister sent Lewis a bus ticket and an invitation to join the movement. Thus began a career marked by “good trouble,” as Lewis came to call his philosophy of action.
Like Vivian, Lewis worked in the civil rights arena for a long and fruitful season. Lewis is likewise well-known for surviving a bloody, racist assault that failed to deter him from pursuing nonviolent change.
He endured an attack by a Klansman in South Carolina and was beaten nearly to death in 1965 by lawmen during a protest march whose violent interruption made Edmund Pettus Bridge an infamous name.
Lewis also helped plan the 1963 March on Washington, where King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” address. And, once an outsider, Lewis later became very familiar with Washington’s workings.
In 1986, he won election to the U.S. House of Representatives. He once said, “If someone had told me when I was growing up that one day, I would be here … I’d say, ‘You’re crazy, you’re thinking the unthinkable.’”
At its best, America has been about accomplishing the unthinkable.
Vivian and Lewis have left us, and the cause which they fought so hard to fully attain is now handed off to us. It is closer to fruition, but still incomplete – yet not unthinkable.
Their noble work is now ours to continue – no small task in an America as divided today as it has been in a long time.
The ideals of old are still there to guide us though, even if now obscured by noise and rancor. It’s up to us to reclaim them.
Rev. Vivian and Rep. Lewis would want us to do that.
The Editorial Board.