John Robert Lewis. Cordy Tindell Vivian. Two elders in the struggle for freedom and liberation have transitioned to the ancestral realm. From the ends of the earth, to the hearts of cities across our nation, from the mouths of liberals and conservatives, cries of anguish are heard across the country. Both men embodied nonviolent direct action as a way of living a moral life and as a strategy for achieving social justice. In their lives, the ideals of “liberty and justice for all” were materialized. As students of their moral leadership, all of us must bear their legacy wherever we are living, working, and creating beloved communities.
Representative John Lewis was a resilient champion for civil rights. He is known as one of the original Freedom Riders and was the youngest speaker at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom nearly 57 years ago. In his staunch stance for racial justice, Congressman Lewis was arrested more than 40 times for civil disobedience. In addition to arrests, Lewis gave his body to the movement, suffering from several beatings and once even a fractured skull during marches and demonstrations. Alas, he remained willing to give of himself for the Freedom movement. Congressman Lewis served as the Representative for Georgia’s 5th Congressional district for more than three decades and was considered the moral conscience of Congress for his uncompromising stance for freedom, human rights, and equality.
Reverend C.T. Vivian was another civil rights icon who is known for his prophetic ministry on the front lines of the modern Civil Rights movement. Rev. Vivian practiced nonviolent direct action as an expression of prophetic religion, leading sit-ins and marches with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He also empowered people through ensuring they were registered to vote in Selma, Alabama during the 1965 voting rights campaign organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. As a consequence, Rev. Vivian suffered physical harm at the hands of the Sheriff Jim Clark. Rev. Vivian remained committed to the movement for Civil Rights as a prophetic preacher and founder of several civil rights organizations, such as the Center for Democratic Renewal.
President Barack Obama honored Congressman Lewis and Rev. Vivian with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor.
Though their immediate presence with us is lost, their work and their legacies will live on. The passion of these two Freedom Fighters reverberates in the streets across our country as protestors emphatically declare that “Black Lives Matter.” Congressman Lewis and Rev. Vivian put their bodies on the line in Selma to galvanize enough public support to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Fifty-five years later, it is our moral obligation to ensure that the core values of the law which they fought so valiantly for are enacted by passing the Voting Rights Advancement Act in Congress.
Our sincerest condolences are extended to the Lewis and Vivian families, and all those who were fortunate enough to know these two powerful men. The William Monroe Trotter Collaborative for Social Justice will continue to fight, organize, and create good trouble wherever injustice resides.
Rest in power,
Cornell William Brooks
Faculty Director, The William Monroe Trotter Collaborative for Social Justice
Hauser Professor of the Practice of Nonprofit Organizations
Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership and Social Justice
Harvard Kennedy School
Devon Jerome Crawford
Staff Director, The William Monroe Trotter Collaborative for Social Justice
Harvard Kennedy School