2 Lives, Well Lived: John Lewis and C.T. Vivian

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John Lewis. Courtesy U.S. House of Representatives; C.T. Vivian. Photo by Howard Morland.

I am a student of civil rights activist, nutritionist and comedian Dick Gregory. Although he died three years ago, his legacy lives on. What he taught me is forever a part of me. He made me understand what it meant to be a part of a movement. In our time together, I met Mandela, Andrew Young, Melvin Van Peebles, Muhammad Ali and, yes, Congressman John Lewis and the Rev. C.T. Vivian.

When I heard that they both had joined our ancestors, my heart was broken. I thought about Dick Gregory. He admired both men, like most Americans did.

It was 1958 when 18-year-old John Lewis meet Dr. Martin Luther King at First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. He had traveled by bus to see the man he admired so much. The year before, he had left the little town of Troy to attend Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville. It was there he joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was one of the original Freedom Riders.

There was another student at the seminary school that would help shape the history of the movement, and that was C.T. Vivian. In 1961, Lewis and Vivian’s bus ride as Freedom Riders would land them in one of the most dangerous prisons in America. At Parchman prison, the two men bonded even more, and their friendship would last 59 years.

Like Lewis, the Rev. Vivian would eventually leave SNCC and join the elderly men at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. As for Lewis, that night at Parchman was only one stop on the road to justice.

No one will ever forget the beating John Lewis received on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in 1965 — anymore than the beating the Rev. Vivian received in Dallas County that same year.

Both men rose up bloody and never raised their hands to fight back. Instead, they continued to march, go to jail and remain true to Dr. King’s nonviolence movement.

The Rev. Vivian never stopped preaching; John Lewis left the ministry but not the mission.

They both moved to Atlanta, where you would see them at social events surrounded by admirers, who just wanted to take a picture or say thank you. We all really just want to say thank you — thank you to two men who so deserved the Presidential Medals of Freedom they received from President Barack Obama.

I have a vision of them now: talking in heaven with Mandela, Malcolm, Martin, Medgar and Dick Gregory. We owe them a thank you for their lives well lived, lives lived not for wealth but for the health of the world.

We are better because of these two men who died on the same day. Yes … we are better.

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