Column: They shall not pass this way again

NASHVILLE, TN - NOVEMBER 19, 2016: Congressman/Civil Rights Icon John Lewis views for the first time images and his arrest record for leading a nonviolent sit-in at Nashville's segregated lunch counters, March 5, 1963. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TN - NOVEMBER 19, 2016: Congressman/Civil Rights Icon John Lewis views for the first time images and his arrest record for leading a nonviolent sit-in at Nashville's segregated lunch counters, March 5, 1963. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images)

Words are hardly sufficient to describe the pain and loss of Friday.

First came the news that the Rev. C.T. Vivian had died at the age of 95. Less than 12 hours later, the news that U.S. Rep. John Lewis had died was a gut-punch of an exclamation point to what has become a surreal year.  

To call them respectively “Reverend” and “Congressman” does so little to address the legacy they left to the nation and in a much more personal way, to Tennessee and to Nashville. 

Their work changed life for America’s Black citizens and changed the minds of many white people, and we won’t see the like of them again. 

Cordy Tindell Vivian and John Robert Lewis met through American Baptist College, a small, historically Black college (HBCU) in Nashville, that strives to help students become “a moral leader, a critical thinker, and a servant-leader.” 

Character is built through both nature and nurture, and as Lewis often told the story of how, as a child, he preached to his family’s chickens, he was clearly cut for a life of service. 

Vivian, born in Missouri and raised in Illinois, joined his first protest at the age of 23. Although a leader of the nonviolent movement to desegregate Nashville’s lunch counters and later a leader of the Freedom Riders, Vivian was anything but passive.

Nashville Mayor Ben West, Rev. C.T. Vivian and Diane Nash in front of the Historic Metro Nashville Courthouse in 1960. (Photo: Nashville Public Library, Special Collections)
Nashville Mayor Ben West, Rev. C.T. Vivian and Diane Nash in front of the Historic Metro Nashville Courthouse in 1960. (Photo: Nashville Public Library, Special Collections)

David Halberstam describes Vivian in his 1998 book about the Movement, The Children, as “always wired, quick to explode.” While others refused to defer to white authority in a low-key way, Vivian provoked anger, both verbal and physical. 

Vivian continued through his life to provoke and to lead for racial and moral justice, working beside Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Among his later accomplishments, he founded the National Anti-Klan Network, now the Center for Democratic Renewal. 

Anyone who cares to know, knows about Lewis’s trajectory. If one photograph in America’s history defines moral courage, it’s the one of Lewis and Rev. Hosea Williams facing Alabama state troopers at Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965, the latter armed with clubs and tear gas; the former looking small and as young as they were. 

By that time, Lewis, at 24, had already been named one of the “Big Six” to help lead King’s March on Washington and he was chair of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. (SNCC.) 

Between then and his 1986 election to Congress, Lewis served with the Voter Education Project, registering minority voters, worked in President Jimmy Carter’s administration and won a spot on the Atlanta City Council.

After the election of Donald Trump in 2016, Lewis became a figure to whom younger generations, those new to the civil rights struggle, turned to for inspiration and guidance. 

  We will redeem the soul of America. We will create the loving community in spite of all of the things that we witness.   – U.S. Rep. John Lewis

One of Lewis’s last public appearances in Nashville came just two weeks after Trump was elected president, before a packed auditorium at Martin Luther King Magnet School, once Pearl High School, a Black school. 

Judging from social media comments over the weekend, half of Nashville was there and most had a word with Lewis. 

I was one of those who met him that day. In a quixotic quest inspired, in large part, by the epiphany I experienced when I finally got around to reading The Children in early 2016, I had just run for Tennessee General Assembly.  

Perhaps not unexpectedly, I lost. Afterward, I had no money. No clients, no job, people had ceased to speak to me over my politics. I was low. 

That day at Martin Luther King Magnet School, as people crowded around him, I managed to get a moment in his sun and I told him he had inspired me. He squeezed my hand and spoke to me of the need to keep trying, to keep working. 

He made me feel special, as he did so many others.

The loss of Vivian and Lewis comes at a time of a renewed focus on racial equality and hypocrisy. Gov. Bill Lee tweeted condolences about Lewis’ death, complete with archival photos of Lewis at a 1964 sit-in, but Tennessee state troopers continue to arrest non-violent Black Lives Matter protesters – the successors to Vivian and Lewis’s Movement – camping in front of the Tennessee Capitol. 

The efforts Lewis, Vivian, and their compatriots began over 60 years ago continue with new activists, but that doesn’t erase the pain of their loss: Their death any time would be hard but is especially resonant now. 

We can take comfort in Lewis’s own words, culled from a New York magazine interview originally published June 8. 

“I feel sometimes that there’s much more that we can do, but we’ve got to organize ourselves and continue to preach the politics of hope, and then follow our young people, who will help us get there. And we will get there. We will redeem the soul of America. We will create the loving community in spite of all of the things that we witness.”