On July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, its last surviving signers, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, died.
On July 17, 2020, two stalwarts from the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Rep. John Lewis and the Rev. C.T. Vivian, died. Though neither Lewis nor Vivian will be lionized in America’s historical pantheon in the same way as Adams and Jefferson, their valiant efforts, nevertheless, moved the nation closer to its stated commitments.
Lewis was one of the last surviving speakers at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He was part of “The Big Six,” prominent civil rights leaders who included the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and who were instrumental in organizing the march.
Vivian worked closely with King, part of the executive staff of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, calling Vivian “The greatest preacher he ever heard.”
President Barack Obama honored both Lewis and Vivian with the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom. They were part of a grand tradition, willing to put their lives on the line for freedom’s cause.
In 1961, Lewis and Vivian were among the Freedom Riders, activists who challenged the Jim Crow laws as it applied to interstate bus travel in the South. They were subjected to horrific violence and incarceration.
When the Freedom Riders arrived in Jackson, Mississippi, Gov. Ross Barnett, in lieu of violence, had them arrested for violating the Jim Crow laws for integrating the bus station’s “whites only” waiting room — a law the Supreme Court had already struck down.
They were tried, convicted and sent to Parchman Penitentiary for 60 days, which had the reputation for brutality. To make the convicted Freedom Riders as uncomfortable as possible, they were put to work on chain gangs.
But Lewis, Vivian and the other Freedom Riders, before embarking on their journey, had already made peace with themselves that was superior to Parchman’s brutal reputation. They knew in advance their efforts could lead to death.
“When those of us on the Freedom Rides left Nashville on May 4, 1961,” Lewis said, “the same year President Obama was born, we were prepared to die! Some of us signed notes and wills. If that was what it took, death, as Dr. King said, ‘to redeem the soul of America,’ some of us were prepared to die.”
Death became an empty concept — a possible price for doing business, but nothing to fear. As King would opine: “If a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.”
Four years later, Lewis and Vivian had another rendezvous with destiny in Selma, Alabama.
On Feb. 15, 1965, staring down Selma’s infamous sheriff, Jim Clark, on the Dallas County Courthouse steps in an attempt to register Black voters, Vivian stated defiantly: “You can’t keep anyone in the United States from voting without hurting the rights of all citizens. Democracy is built on this. This is why every man has the right to vote!”
Shortly after Vivian’s remarks, video captures Clark issuing a left cross to Vivian’s face, hurling him down the stairs. Clark then ordered that Vivian, his face soaked in blood, be arrested.
Three weeks later, March 7, 1965, a 25-year-old John Lewis led more than 600 marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in what became known as “Bloody Sunday.” The footage of the violence administered by law enforcement shocked the nation’s collective sensibilities, galvanizing the call for racial justice, specifically voting rights.
“You come to that point in your life, you have what I call an ‘executive session’ with yourself,” Lewis said. “And you say: ‘I’m not going to be afraid.’ ... I thought I was going to die on that bridge, but I was not afraid.”
Vivian stated: “You know what you’re there for; you know the cost on both sides. You know the cost if you don’t do anything. You know all your life you’ve been waiting to get rid of racism. And you know until you can break it in the South, it will not be broken.”
Lewis and Vivian were part of a courageous cabal that believed in an America that was superior to its inconsistent application — a lesson we could sorely heed today. They, along with many others, audaciously took seriously the words crafted in Philadelphia and eventually signed at Independence Hall.
Like Adams and Jefferson, Lewis and Vivian take their final flight together. And like the 56 delegates who signed the Declaration in 1776, Lewis and Vivian are part of an illustrious American genealogy that will be remembered for mutually pledging their lives, fortunes and sacred honor in pursuit of a more perfect union.
The Rev. Byron Williams (email@example.com), a writer and the host of “The Public Morality” on WSNC 90.5, lives in Winston-Salem.
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