Lewis was the youngest of the “Big Six” speakers at the March on Washington before becoming “the conscience of Congress” for more than a generation. Vivian’s efforts to make the founding ideals of our democracy real for all Americans are no less significant.
Growing up in Atlanta, I didn’t learn the history of the civil rights movement. I saw the legacy of those efforts up close: on television, around the city and in the streets as the fight for justice and equality continued through both politics and protests in “The City Too Busy to Hate.”
As a journalist writing about the movement, I met some of the heroes: Vivian, Lewis, Andrew Young, the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery and others. In their presence, listening to their memories, their experiences became more than stories about the march toward equality and the theoretical importance of voting. Vivian’s view of citizens’ responsibility to make the country live up to its creeds was an omnipresent force in his life. Such conversations were the air I breathed as an Atlantan and a journalist.
Lewis was still a boy when Vivian, in his first job, as recreation director for the Carver Community Center in 1947, conducted a sit-in in Peoria, Ill. Vivian was on the front lines of the freedom struggle years before the campaigns in Montgomery, Selma and Birmingham, Ala., would make headlines.
For Vivian and many other young leaders, faith was directly intertwined with their belief in nonviolent action as a strategy. Vivian met King not long after the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott. Vivian was editor of the Sunday School Publishing Board for the National Baptist Convention and interviewed the civil rights leader at Fisk University (where Lewis was a student). After King co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, Vivian became national director of affiliates.
When desegregation efforts reached St. Augustine, Fla., in 1964, Vivian joined the fight on the beach in the country’s oldest city. He was beaten, pushed into the ocean and nearly drowned.
A month before “Bloody Sunday” in March 1965, when skirmishes in Selma, Ala., came to a head on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Vivian had a life-threatening altercation there. After hundreds of black Americans were blocked by the county registrar, Vivian got into Sheriff Jim Clark’s face on the steps of the courthouse, wagging his finger and declaring as nearby cameras rolled: “You can turn your back now and you can keep your club in your hand, but you cannot beat down justice. And we will register to vote, because as citizens of these United States, we have the right to do it.”
Clark punched Vivian in the face.
After the events of Bloody Sunday — which helped lead to passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — Vivian spent years as a consultant on workplace diversity and started the Center for Democratic Renewal, which brought together blacks and whites to confront white supremacy. He also worked on Jesse Jackson’s 1984 presidential campaign. His commitment to racial and economic equality and belief in nonviolent resistance to systemic racism never wavered. At 87, he came out of retirement to again help lead the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
I interviewed Vivian at his home in Atlanta after he took the role. He was gracious and generous as we spent hours talking. He smiled and laughed, even while recounting harrowing moments. He proudly showed off his extensive collection of black art and books, as well as mementos from the battlefield.
“You learn by doing," he told me. "We don’t care how young people are. They should be called to struggle for their freedom.”
Vivian would have turned 96 on July 28. Many black Americans consider Vivian; Lewis; Lowery, who died in March at age 98; and other men and women on the front lines of the civil rights movement among our country’s founding mothers and fathers because they helped make our democracy more real for those who had long been excluded. Much like the Greatest Generation honored for defending freedom during World War II, they and millions of other black Americans of their era survived battle. They helped to perfect our union.
As these brave Americans are mourned, it’s disquieting to consider what the loss of their physical presence means for our country’s social fabric. Already, the pandemic has robbed millions of the opportunity for proper closure. It’s unclear whether these giants can be memorialized in ways befitting their legacies.
Their deaths could be a galvanizing force at a moment of national reflection: not merely about resurgent racism and voter-suppression efforts but also the more recent reckoning around the institutions and individuals maintaining structural systems of oppression.
Vivian’s love of knowledge, his commitment to equality, his determination is an example for this generation’s freedom fighters. His contribution to our democracy is perhaps less famous than some of his peers’ but just as valuable: He was ready to lay down his life for liberty and justice for all of us.