My mother remembers Rev. C.T. Vivian as a young pastor in Chattanooga, Tennessee, during the early 1950s. He would come to her elementary school on East 5th Street and lead Bible-inspirational lessons with the students, teaching them about pride and perseverance within the Jim Crow South.
Mom educated me in my childhood to what many only learned this week, that Rev. Vivian departed Chattanooga to join the Movement full-time with Rev. Dr. King’s. Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). We are eternally grateful for the contribution he made in places such as Nashville, as a Freedom Rider and in Selma confronting Sheriff Jim Clark. Nearly 50 years later, in the summer of 2001, I sat next to C.T. on a hill in Durban, South Africa, listening to the late Comandante Fidel Castro speak to us at the UN World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) for nearly four hours. We were all captivated and locked in.
I remember the blue “Vote for John Lewis” sign in our yard in 1986, as Mom voted for John Lewis over Julian Bond for the U.S. Congress. It came down to personal class politics within the Black community in my house. My Mother was part of the 40% of Black people in the 5th Congressional District of Georgia that supported John Lewis (80% of the Whites supported John over Julian–John’s coalition arguably was more multi-racial). Lewis’s upbringing more closely resembled my parents in comparison to Bond the son of a college president. . John Lewis was a farm boy, so was my Dad. Lewis didn’t grow up with a silver spoon; neither did my parents. John talked and looked more like my parents and the people I grew up with, his mannerisms, style of speech and his Baptist cadence. I have this teenage memory of seeing John Lewis walking out of a Kroger Supermarket in Atlanta carrying a watermelon.
As the student body President at Howard University (1997-98), I was front and center when Congressman Lewis saluted Kwame Ture (formerly known as Stokely Carmichael) seven months before the latter passed from this life due to prostate cancer. Given the ideological differences between the two men, John the Integrationist-Multi-Racial Builder and Kwame Ture–the Black Nationalist-Pan-Africanist Builder, I learned that night what true Brotherhood is through bloodshed and sacrifice for the People’s Struggle. I’m also reminded both of these men opposed the war in Vietnam.
I would interface with Congressman Lewis office twice as an enlisted sailor in the U.S. Navy:
- First, in the spring of 2006, I requested help from his office in an Equal Opportunity investigation, an investigation I initiated due to having a hangman’s noose dangled in front of my face aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt, while deployed off the coast of Iraq. Congressman Lewis sent a letter to the Naval Chief of Legislative Affairs on my behalf. Absent that inquiry, there would be no record of the violation or the investigation afterward. His inquiry ensured that we had pushed the investigation as far as we could. Afterward, conditions improved aboard the Roosevelt: Women and sailors of color did not face the intolerance we once faced.
- The following year, when I banded with a small core of active-duty personnel sending an open Appeal for Redress to Congress regarding the Iraq War, Congressman Lewis was one of the first on Capitol Hill to support us.
Congressman Lewis remained steadfast and I was both honored and humbled to pay homage to his sacrifices at the January 2017 Counter-Inaugural after the election. Instead of attending 45’s inaugural, the Ole SNCC Chairman–as he did at the Foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge decades ago– refused to bow.
SALUTE to Rev. CT Vivian and Congressman John Lewis-A luta Continua! ! The Struggle Continues.