What The Nation Can Do After The Passing of John Lewis And C.T. Vivian

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The Rev. C.T. Vivian and Congressmen John Lewis contributed to breaking the forms of white supremacy that reflected Jim Crow America. (Photo Credit: Atlanta Journal Constitution)

The recent passing of two civil rights giants must be instructive as we move toward deepening democracy in our nation. Democratic societies are implicit expressions of our moral prerogatives — the ways in which we prioritize what forms of ethical comportment is best for maximizing the fairest social and political outcomes for the greatest number of people. John Lewis and C.T. Vivian were American citizens well-aware of these powerful civic sentiments.

I had the enormous opportunity of working with the Reverend C.T. Vivian and Congressman John Lewis over the last twenty years, interacting with them from time to time, hearing them preach audaciously and marching with them over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma during the annual Bloody Sunday memorial weekends.

Each died within hours of each other on a Friday in Atlanta, the erstwhile epicenter of the Civil Rights Movement. Each taught me that faith and policy matters. Their fealty to the republic and their publicly expressed theological inclinations on behalf of democracy will not be forgotten.

I became engaged as an activist with both men as a young idealist who travelled to Selma in the early 2000s to work on unseating the long-time incumbent Mayor Joe Smitherman of Selma, who had assisted in presiding over Bloody Sunday in 1965, and who unsuccessfully campaigned against the waged voting rights efforts that eventually turned into federal law.

John Lewis and C.T. Vivian were integral to that movement in Selma, so meeting them decades later was life changing. Both were connected to the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute in Selma. In light of my work in ousting the mayor Selma, Rev. Vivian invited me to be on its board of directors. I eagerly accepted.

Four years later, both men visited me in Boston as they accepted my organization’s civic service award at the African Meeting House in Boston. It was a quaint, but grand occasion that coincided with the Democratic National convention, where I was introduced to Illinois State Senator Barack Obama, who would soon become president.

I will always remember one specific moment that I spent with Congressman Lewis and Rev. Vivian. We were sitting on the dais during the event were they were being honored in Boston. With me in the center seat on stage, Vivian leaned toward Lewis to say this: “Here we go again.” To which Lewis said, “Yes, C.T. we are. Again.”

Those laconically expressed sentiments exchanged by Rev. King’s lions during the blood encrusted battle for voting rights in Selma spoke volumes as my young self listened.

They were saying, in essence, that the fight for democracy was incomplete and that engaging in the interests of policy changes that create greater freedom is important. They were saying that black lives matter with regard to their total integration into the life and prosperity of the nation. They were saying that they commended the dream that King articulated about a commitment to nonviolence and the goals of peace. They were saying that truth crushed to earth will rise again.

Some years ago, I sat in C.T. Vivian’s home in Atlanta for what became a two day mentoring session about the meaning of King and the Civil Rights Movement. Many profound things were said, but what I mostly recall about that the movement was unfinished. He encouraged me to continue my specific work at civic rights. He visited me at Boston University where I established my organization and he made sure that Ambassador Andrew Young visited me there also.

I saw Lewis at the lip of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma in March. He was frail and unwell but determined in conveying the message that we should vote this November “like we never voted before.”

During the coming days of mourning related to their passing, we must remember the men as much as we recall their name. Yes, the name of the Edmund Pettus Bridge should be renamed the John Lewis Bridge. And yes fitting monuments should rise in honor of C.T. Vivian.

Democratic societies are implicit expressions of our moral prerogatives — the ways in which we prioritize what forms of ethical comportment is best for maximizing the fairest social and political outcomes for the greatest number of people. John Lewis and C.T. Vivian were American citizens well-aware of these powerful sentiments.

But equally important, we should all work to expand the precious precincts of democracy all over the nation. We should all fight to protect the right to vote and make elections fairer. We should all commit to policies in our state that honor the presence and legacy of black and brown people, especially Native Americans.

U.S. legislators are now considering a law that would create a Commission for Truth and Reconciliation. The commission should take historical note of the harm and disadvantage experienced by people that John Lewis and C.T. Vivian fought on behalf. The Commission should hear testimony of those who have been hurt by racism and offer reparations.

The congress should also renew the 1965 Voting Rights Act that had been gutted by a conservative U.S. Supreme Court. Perhaps the renewed law should be named after C.T. Vivian.

This is how we honor the words: “Here we go again.” Through allegiance to pledges long undertaken by Lewis and Vivian. Through allegiance to their faith and resolve in the uniqueness of American democracy. To allegiance that we continue an unbroken straining as respect to the nobility they characterized toward making democracy better.

Vivian and Lewis will rest in peace knowing that they have, as communitcated in a letter from St. Paul to Timothy, fought the good fight and that they have finished the race. They were aggressive in their pursuits of dramatizing the necessity of democracy and demanding that we get into “good trouble” on behalf of freedom.

It is our job in the nation is to ensure that their efforts in the pursuit of freedom will not be darkened — and ensure that we shall overcome.

Kevin Peterson is founder of the New Democracy Coalition and Convener of the Fanueil Hall Race and Reconciliation Project. He is a social and cultural critic.

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