C.T. Vivian was a Civil Rights pioneer who led opposition to Southern racial segregation as far back as the 1940s, and who somehow survived the often murderous backlash suffered by proponents of equal rights. Both blatant institutional racism and violent suppression of all efforts to achieve equality persisted from the end of Reconstruction in 1877 through the 1960s. C.T. was there as a mentor to pave the way for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and others who became leaders through the heart of the struggle for voting rights, equal treatment under the law, and full rights of citizenship for all Americans. And C.T. marched and stood with that succeeding generation, living through it as others lost their lives in that struggle.
He is featured throughout PBS's acclaimed documentary "Eyes On The Prize" (1987 & 2006). As late as 2012, C.T. said, “Nonviolent, direct action makes us successful. We learned how to solve social problems without violence. We cannot allow the nation or the world to ever forget that.”
John Lewis, Congressman from Georgia, was 17 years old when he first wrote to Dr. King and then followed him into the marches for equality in the 1960s. Those were the "demonstrations" most infamously attacked by police, police dogs, fire hoses, and more. On the date known as "Bloody Sunday," John Lewis had his skull fractured by a nightstick-wielding policeman while marching across a bridge named for a racist former governor of Alabama who headed the Ku Klux Klan. (The band U2 would write their song "Sunday, Bloody Sunday" for an incident in Northern Ireland, but it has always had so much resonance for Americans looking back over our own divisive history that it has often been atrributed to what happened on that bridge in Alabama.)
On America's "Bloody Sunday" in 1965, a very youthful Lewis and his fellow marchers were peacefully protesting to gain the right to vote. In 2018, John Lewis returned to that bridge and was interviewed by CNN's Dana Bash, in what she calls one of the most memorable moments of her career. Watch it here.
He was born the son of impoverished sharecroppers, and he rose to become one of the most respected members of Congress.
Today there is an effort to change the name of that bridge and rename it for John Lewis, who was nearly killed on it. He was born the son of impoverished sharecroppers, and he rose to become one of the most respected members of Congress. Lewis died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 80, but he was still -- until his final days -- vitally seeking to get himself into, as he proudly called it, "Good Trouble."
Across America, every living former president promptly released a statement honoring John Lewis and citing his role in making America more equitable for all its citizens. Odd man out was the current White House resident, who spent the day golfing and was conspicuously absent from the abundance of tributes. But nationwide, political leaders of every stripe -- even those who have been actively blocking Congressman Lewis's efforts to re-instate the Voting Rights Act -- issued statements honoring him. That includes LGBTQ leaders, because John Lewis was one of the first members of Congress to publicly and legislatively declare that an equitable society is inclusive of the rights of, and guaranteed opportunities for, all its citizens.
Tiffany Muller, president of Let America Vote, notes, "He was arrested over 40 times while helping lead the movement. He had done more to better our country by the time he was 30 than most of us could hope to do in a lifetime."
She continues, "He was elected to Congress in 1986 and he quickly became known as the Conscience of the Congress as he relentlessly pushed to create a more just society. He led House Democrats in a sit-in after the Pulse Nightclub massacre to urge action on gun control measures. And just last month, continued to support global demonstrations against police brutality and systemic racism while fighting his own battle against cancer."
Rev. Al Sharpton commented, "Dr. King used to say there are two kinds of leaders: those who are thermometers and those who are thermostats. A thermometer tells the temperature. A thermostat determines the temperature. John Lewis was a thermostat."
Watching the coverage of the passing of these two heroes -- who used peaceful protest in direct action to fight for fulfillment of the promise of the American Dream -- there were many famous voices, some impassioned, some humble, going on record. Their meeting in commonality was the remembrance of commanding presences of two people who had been their friends, inspirations, and mentors.
Again speaking of John Lewis, "His words in 2019 on the House floor serve as an important reminder to us all that we share a moral responsibility to stand up and act in the face of injustice, notes Tiffany Muller.
As John Lewis said that day, “When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something. To do something. Our children and their children will ask us, ‘What did you do? What did you say?’ For some, this vote may be hard. But we have a mission and a mandate to be on the right side of history.”
There is plenty in his words, and those of C.T. Vivian, to foster inspiration. But what really got us was the guest who, immediately after she was introduced, broke into song, belting-out a Civil Rights anthem whose promise still has not been completely fulfilled. That's what put us in tears.
Once again, the power of song transcends all other forms of communication. Here are two renditions of the song she sang live on a news broadcast. Both these performances are backed by historic images that look, hauntingly and powerfully, like scenes of 2020's efforts to finally achieve the promise.
The song is, "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around." One performance is by The Roots, and has wonderful cameo comments of movement leaders, including Harry Belafonte, here. The other is by Sweet Honey in the Rock and its full soundtrack is just their singing backed by images, here.
That's the perfect place to look to the larger context.
Heroes need not look like us. They need not share our brief moments of time on this Earth. They need not speak the way we do to speak to us, across time and distance and unfulfilled promise and promises. But what they must do, and what makes them heroes, is very simple: they must act to extend and protect the promise of what each of us must have as a safeguarded guarantee, as our undeniable birthright -- to fulfill our unique gift of potential, and in so doing, to advance humankind.
Because heroes are about brave and selfless acts that give the rest of us a chance. There must therefore be equal access to opportunity. Only then can we -- each of us, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, creed, or things that make us passionate -- fulfill our individual promise and allow our individual gifts to advance human freedom, human society, and human understanding. Only then can we reach out, together, to expand the frontier into the vastness of the outer, and the complexities of the inner, universe.
And so to C.T. Vivian and John Lewis, we say, thank you for sacrificing to bring us all closer to those elusive goals that our own failings have made contentious. And with that thanks, we humbly add, "Well Done."
Acoustic Americana Music Guide