Civil rights warriors C.T. Vivian and John Lewis – who both shed blood in the exercise of their constitutional rights as Black Americans – died on same day.

A wreath honoring civil rights icons C.T. Vivian and John Lewis was mounted outside the Freedom Rides Museum in Montgomery, Ala., on July 18.



ATLANTA – Two civil rights legends who fought together closely with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for nonviolent social change, and whose civil rights activities paralleled each other for decades, died on the same day.

The Rev. C.T. Vivian, 95, died July 17 of natural causes after suffering a stroke last year. Congressman John Lewis, 80 years old, died on the same day months after announcing last year that he had Stage Four pancreatic cancer.

Vivian was born in 1924 in Boonville, Mo., before moving with his mother to Macomb, Ill., where he attended  Western Illinois University. Vivian participated in his first sit-in demonstration to desegregate a Peoria, Ill. cafeteria in 1947.

Lewis was born in 1940, in Troy, Ala., the third of ten children of his parents who were sharecroppers.

Meeting MLK

Vivian, by then a pastor, met King during the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott – a demonstration spurred by Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat to a White rider. The 13-month mass protest drew international attention.

Lewis, a teenager who wanted to be a preacher, heard King on the radio and was impressed about what he heard. Lewis met Rosa Parks when he was 17, and met King for the first time when he was 18.

Nashville link

With the help of his church, Vivian enrolled in American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville in 1955.

There, he met other young people in the Nashville Student Movement who were to serve as the backbone of the civil rights movement: Diane Nash, Bernard Lafayette, James Bevel –and Lewis. All of them had been workshop students of the Rev. James Lawson and the Rev. Kelly Miller Smith, who were both teaching Mohandas Gandhi’s  nonviolent direct action strategy.

Organizational leaders

That same year, Vivian and other ministers founded the Nashville Christian Leadership Conference, an affiliate of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

Meanwhile, Lewis – after graduating from the  American Baptist Theological Seminary then from Fisk University – and others took on major leadership roles in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

While with SNCC, Lewis was constantly arrested and jailed during nonviolent protests, including bus boycotts and desegregation marches. SNCC, with Lewis as its chairman, was one of six groups who organized the 1963  March on Washington and fought to end racial segregation in America.

SNCC launched the Mississippi  Freedom Summer campaign for voting rights. The effort was met with violence and murder but it resulted in some of the most historic and consequential changes in the law for human rights in America.  Vivian and Lewis were both Freedom Riders.

Punched by sheriff

By 1965, Vivian had become the director of national affiliates for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference when he led a group of people to register to vote in Selma, Ala.

CNN memorialized Vivian, noting that, as County Sheriff Jim Clark blocked the group, Vivian said in a fiery tone, “We will register to vote because as citizens of the United States we have the right to do it.”

Clark responded by beating Vivian until blood dripped off his chin in front of rolling cameras. The images helped galvanize more comprehensive support for change.

Iconic Selma stand

The famous March 7,1965 video of Lewis being attacked along with 600 other marchers by Alabama state troopers near the Edmund Pettus Bridge is an oftenreviewed turning point in American social and cultural history.

The footage from Selma shocked the nation and the world as Blacks in the United States struggled against government authority for basic rights and respect.

The violent confrontation led to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which was signed by President Lyndon Johnson on Aug. 6, 1965.

Vivian’s and Lewis’ efforts and the increase in Black voting registration of African Americans in the South changed U.S. politics forever. The power of Black voters was first seen nationally with the election of President Jimmy Carter in 1976.

 March on Washington

Lewis was the last living speaker at the historic 1963 March on Washington. At 23, Lewis was the youngest speaker to stand behind the same podium from which King delivered his historic  “I Have a Dream” speech.

Lewis’ speech was altered by his civil rights “elders” Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph and James Foreman because the original draft was critical of President John F. Kennedy. Lewis was viewed as “too radical” by Randolph in particular.

Lewis was critical of the resulting 1965 Civil Rights Act because he believed it did not go far enough to protect African Americans against police brutality.

‘Titan’ in Congress

In 1986, Lewis was elected to Congress, where he was nicknamed “the conscience of the
Congress.” He regularly delivered emotional speeches on the U.S. House floor.

On June 7, appearing thinner but remaining spirited, Lewis visited the street mural in large yellow letters that reads BLACK LIVES MATTER placed by the mayor of the District of Columbia. The appearance would be one of his last in public.

Diversity consultant

In his post-civil rights career, Vivian founded the C.T. Vivian Leadership Institute in Atlanta, among other activities. His intent was “to create a model of leadership culture in the city that would be dedicated to the development and sustainability of our communities,” according to a statement from the National Basketball Association’s Atlanta Hawks.

“Vivian also started Basic Diversity, one of the nation’s first diversity consulting firms, now led by his son, Al, who has been a great partner to our organization. We are grateful for Dr. Vivian’s many years of devotion to Atlanta and thankful that we had the opportunity to honor and share his legacy with our fans,” read the statement.

Highest civilian award

Vivian and Lewis both received honorary degrees and various awards recognizing their moral authority and commitment to peace and non-violence.

Both also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor, from President Barack Obama.

Stacy M. Brown and Lauren Victoria Burke of the NNPA both contributed to this report.



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