Rep. John Lewis and Rev. C.T. Vivian, pillars of the Civil Rights movement

Herb Boyd | 7/19/2020, 9:48 a.m.
Within hours of each other and not too far apart in Atlanta, two pillars of the civil rights movement joined ...
Congressman John Lewis (left) and Rev. C.T. Vivian U.S. Congress photo/White House/public domain photo

Within hours of each other and not too far apart in Atlanta, two pillars of the civil rights movement joined the ancestors. The Rev. C.T. Vivian, 95, was the first to go and later on Friday, Rep. John Lewis, 80, followed him. Their paths to the pantheon of social justice as freedom fighters converged in 1959 in Nashville, Tennessee where Lewis was a student and with Vivian they studied civil disobedience and nonviolent protest under the Rev. James Lawson.

Both survived vicious attacks and personal injury during their crusade for social justice, and each eventually soared in Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s orbit, carving their own impressive niches in the nation’s history.

In 1965, when Sheriff Jim Clark was confronted by Vivian during a march for voter registration in Selma, the burly sheriff hit Vivian so hard that the minister toppled down the courthouse steps to the sidewalk, stunned and aghast. The incident was captured on Henry Hampton’s remarkable documentary “Eyes on the Prize.”

That same year in Selma, Lewis was knocked to the ground during a protest march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and trampled by a crowd fleeing from state troopers wielding nightsticks and other weapons. This, too, can be seen on “Eyes on the Prize,” with Lewis tumbling to the street and the under the feet of the human stampede. Another photo shows him being savagely beaten by a state trooper.

Unforgettable, too, is the photo of Lewis, his face bloodied and standing beside fellow Freedom Rider, James Zwerg, also a bloody victim of a brutal attack by segregationists in Montgomery, Alabama in the spring of 1961. Three years before, Vivian was nearly killed in St. Augustine, Florida when roving gangs of whites attacked and whipped Black swimmers and bathers with chains, including Vivian who almost drowned.

Vivian and Lewis seemed to be always where the action was, risking their lives and facing arrests that Lewis experienced some 40 times. They were fearless freedom fighters, never wavering from the nonviolence Lawson taught them.

Born Cordy Tindell Vivian in Boonville, Missouri on July 30, 1924, he was the only child of Robert and Euzetta Tindell Vivian. He was six years old when the family moved to Macomb, Illinois. In 1942 he graduated from Macomb High School and later studied history at the University of Western Illinois. After dropping out of the school to become a recreation worker, he found his métier in 1947 helping to desegregate a cafeteria in Peoria, Illinois. Ten years later, while studying at the American Baptist College in Nashville, he attended a local church and heard Dr. King’s speech on nonviolence. Vivian told historian Stephen Oates that he “was spellbound. He had studied Gandhian techniques, but until now had never understood the philosophy behind them.”

After a litany of protest marches, rallies, and sit-ins—most memorably in Nashville--Vivian was inducted into Dr. King’s inner circle with such notables as the Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, and the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. From 1963 to 1966, he was the national director of more than 80 local affiliates of the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference). In this capacity he oversaw nonviolent strategy and tactics, community development programs and projects, and chiefly coordinating voter registration drives.