Having the precious opportunity to meet and talk with civil rights icons Rep. John Lewis and Rev. C.T. Vivian several years ago allowed me to see two living oracles of history whose voices were still rousing, daring and vigorous.
Continuing to carry the mantle of the movement centered in God’s love, mercy and forgiveness, neither had skipped a beat since their days of marching with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and organizing sit-ins and Freedom Rides. Both were veteran soldiers who had been on the front lines in the struggle for voting rights and racial equality. They were tirelessly pouring in their wisdom and knowledge to a younger generation who probably didn’t fully grasp the magnitude of their courage and sacrifices.
I met Lewis in 2014 when the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer was being commemorated at the 4th National Civil Rights Conference in the cities of Meridian and Philadelphia, Mississippi. I met Vivian when he was the keynote speaker for Ohio State’s MLK Day celebration in 2016. When these two humble, yet fearless, drum majors for social justice passed away within hours of each other on July 17 in Atlanta, their lives could be summarized in 2 Timothy 4:7, where the Apostle Paul wrote, “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.”
During his “good fight,” Lewis also became known for urging us to get into, as he ingeniously called, “good trouble,” where we would push forward to “help redeem the soul of America.” This was a fundamental theme in many of Lewis’ fiery speeches, and when I met him at Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Philadelphia, MS, the only disappointment of that day was that I did not get to hear him speak. While driving with my mother, I made a wrong turn down a rural road during the 48-minute route to Mt. Zion from Meridian. By the time we pulled up to the church, those in attendance had just finished singing “We Shall Overcome” with Lewis and Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of civil rights activist Medgar Evers.
The festivities then moved to Mt. Zion’s fellowship hall, where everyone was looking forward to a down-home meal that included the traditional staple of southern Black church dinners: golden fried chicken. My mother and I waited patiently to get through the crowd that still surrounded Lewis, and when we finally got to talk with him he was more than generous with his time.
My mom was especially excited to meet Lewis because he was a giant of her generation. Both were born in 1940, and I remember them laughing and talking about the 60s as my mother shared some of her experiences from Albany State University, an HBCU in Albany, Georgia. Soon Lewis’ publicist approached us and said the congressman would miss his flight if he continued talking, which of course Lewis did until he absolutely had to leave.
Reflecting on my meeting with Vivian, he truly embodied keeping the faith. I interviewed him at Ohio State’s Hale Black Cultural Center, and at 91, he was vibrant and had the energy of a man 40 years his junior. My questions were primarily about the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march, and as Vivian began recalling that momentous, historic event that resulted in the Voting Rights Act being passed, he prefaced his remarks with “Martin and I,” referencing his close friendship with King. Although I had seen Selma footage of Vivian along with King and Lewis, I was listening in awe like a kindergartner immersed in story time by a master teacher. What I cherish the most about that conversation was that Vivian and I also talked about our faith in Christ. He was proud that the civil rights movement was grounded in “Christian love,” which he believed would eventually lift our nation out of its bastion of hatred.
With Lewis and Vivian now having passed on, a significant part of their legacies that we should definitely follow can be found in Colossians 4:6, which says, “Let your speech be alway with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man.”
Both of these great men spoke with eminent grace and resolve. Their speech was seasoned with salt because they firmly believed everyone in this country was worthy of respect, even when it wasn’t reciprocated.
Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at The Ohio State University-Lima. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. @JjSmojc