This past Friday, we lost two giants of the civil rights movement—CT Vivian and John Lewis.

Vivian was a Baptist minister, Freedom Rider, and a member of Martin Luther King’s inner circle. Beginning in 1963, he served as the national director of affiliates for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In that role, he was a major organizer for civil rights across the South.

Like King, he was a devout advocate for nonviolent resistance—a commitment that was tested more than once. In 1965, he traveled to Selma to press for voting rights. On the steps of the Selma, Alabama courthouse a club-wielding Sheriff Jim Clark confronted him. Vivian said to Clark,

You can keep the club in your hand, but you cannot beat down justice… we will register to vote, because as citizens of these United States we have the right to do it.”

Clark responded by knocking Vivian to the ground. Vivian did not retaliate, but pulled himself to his feet and kept speaking until police arrested him. At first sight it appeared that Jim Crow had prevailed, but before the year was out Congress had passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Vivian was a gifted preacher who served for a time as a pastor in Chattanooga, TN. Dr. King said he was “the greatest preacher” he had ever heard. Later he served as the Dean of the Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, N.C. and was the founder of the Center for Democratic Renewal in Atlanta, GA. In 2013, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

Perhaps more familiar is John Lewis. Born to sharecroppers in rural Alabama, he heard Dr. King on the radio and was inspired to become involved in the civil rights movement. Working closely with Dr. King, he became the first chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Later he went on to serve 17 terms as a congressman in the US House of Representatives from 1987-2020. President Obama bestowed on Lewis the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.

Lewis stressed that the civil rights movement was built on deep-seated religious convictions.

I accepted the teaching of Jesus, the way of love, the way of nonviolence, the spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation. The idea of hate is too heavy a burden to bear….  I’ve seen too much hate, seen too much violence. And I know love is a better way.”

 He spoke from painful experience.  On March 7, 1965, twenty-five-year-old Lewis led 500 marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama in a nonviolent demonstration seeking voter’s rights.As television cameras rolled, a state trooper brutally beat Lewis, leaving him with a fractured skull.

That day is infamously known as “Bloody Sunday.”

Over the weekend I saw an interview with John Lewis where he described an experience that broke my heart. As a young teenager, he went to his local library in Troy, Alabama to get a book only to be told that library “served only whites.” What makes this so poignant is that books are the indispensable tools of education, and education is the means to a job and a secure future in this nation. To be turned away from the library was just another way that Jim Crow laws sought to keep Blacks mired in poverty. I grew up poor in the South, but I still could go to the library and check out books. Those books became my doorway to a more fulfilling life. To keep books away from young people is to me, tantamount to a crime against humanity.

Requiescat in pace CT Vivian and John Lewis.