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John Lewis and C.T. Vivian taught us the power of living lives of principle, action and commitment

From the President

Kresge President Rip Rapson has been writing daily notes to the staff during the COVID-19 pandemic as we continue to work from home. We are sharing a selection of these letters that touch on current events and issues relevant to these unprecedented times.

The passing Friday of John Lewis and C.T. Vivian has been observed with the kind of tributes so appropriate to two people of transcendent courage, commitment and import.

Civil rights leaders of yesterday, today and tomorrow have stepped up powerfully to memorialize two very different, but equally historic, embodiments of heroism and vision.

If you were to supplement by just seven or eight minutes your listening of tributes to Rep. Lewis, I would encourage you to watch the CNN interview of Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minneapolis:

It focuses less on Lewis’ pathbreaking bravery and resolve when he was viciously attacked on the Edmund Pettis Bridge during the Bloody Sunday demonstration in Selma . . . or on his ceaseless dedication to equal and full voting rights . . . or on his powerfully provocative call to action in the 1963 March on Washington, which culminated in his pledge to “march through the South through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did and burn Jim Crow to the ground – nonviolently”  . . . or on his formative leadership of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee as an avenue to give young Black people the opportunity to have more of a voice in the early civil rights movement . . . or on his tireless efforts to awaken the soul of congressional colleagues who seemed unable to find their way to racial justice.

Instead, the interview focuses more on Rep. Ilhan’s moving and very personal examples of his commitment to passing the torch – with profound compassion, generosity and kindness. His advice:  “Be bold, be brave, be courageous. Never be bitter. Never hate. The way of love is a much better way.”

The Rev. C.T. Vivian is not as well-known as Lewis. Some 15 years older, his influence moves directly through successive generations of civil rights activism rooted in the black church. Like Lewis, Vivian attended American Baptist College in Nashville. But Vivian’s journey began earlier, with his participation in sit-in demonstrations in the 1940s in Peoria, Illinois, and his early association with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. following the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott. He worked intensively and intentionally on anti-racism long before it was an expressly articulated idea and ideal – when the concept of systemic racism was impossible to call out because it was the predicate of, and driving force behind, the web of laws and beliefs and practices that shaped 20th Century America.

Vivan helped organize the Freedom Rides to integrate buses across the South, and he trained waves of activists in non-violent protest. It was Vivian whose challenge to the Selma segregationist sheriff while trying to register Black voters sparked the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Left: John Lewis, Right: C.T. Vivian

Like Lewis, Vivian was seen as a mentor and inspiration, not just to those who followed him immediately into the civil rights movement of the 1970s, but also to those who came later, such as Andrew Young and Bryan Stevenson, and generations of those who led from the pulpit – the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Rev. Al Sharpton, the Rev. William Barber and on and on.

Kresge’s Benjamin Kennedy suggested to me that the legacies of these two men might be captured by the inscription on the headstone of James Earl Chaney, a young (21 at the time) activist and freedom fighter from Mississippi who helped organize and lead many of the youth- and student-driven activities in Mississippi throughout the early sixties, before being lynched during the Freedom Summer of 1964. The inscription reads: “There are those who are dead, yet will live forever. Great deeds inspire and encourage the living.”

And these two men were in fact the embodiment of great deeds. It should not be surprising, but it is nevertheless affirming and inspiring, that we can valorize through respect and stature people who live lives of inviolable principle, selfless action, unyielding commitment to equality and justice and patient and constructive “good trouble.” The lives of these two men carry that powerful lesson – one so desperately needed during this dark time.

Alan Stone, one of my longest and dearest friends, relayed a wonderful story about Lewis:

“When I was staffing on the House floor early in 1987, I saw through the cloakroom door the brand-new congressman from Atlanta, John Lewis. I then saw another new House member, Joe Kennedy II, Bobby’s oldest son, look up from his work to see Lewis. Lewis then saw him, and they hurried towards each other and wordlessly embraced for a long time. I have that moment seared in my mind.”

Alan went on to write me:

“To live for every living moment of their last five decades as teachers, role models, moral exemplars – as well as to be a living bridge to those who risked everything to save from itself a nation that gave them nothing – touched each of them, and through them, us, with a special grace. That is why their loss feels so personal.

These men refused to take the hand that was dealt them. A nation begun in slavery. Segregation, Indifference. But they believed that we can make the future better than the present, and that each of us has a personal and moral responsibility to try.”

We at Kresge do our work because we believe that, too. We believe we have a role to play. We believe that fixing it together is the only way that works. We believe that those who are committed to the work of equity, justice and social change honor the memories of the John Lewis’ and the C.T. Vivian’s by never letting the problems that face us cause us to lose faith in the dream these two great men held.