Another chapter of the civil rights movement came to a close Friday when two icons of the era passed from this life on the same day. Congressman John Lewis and Rev. Cordy Tindell “C.T.” Vivian will be remembered for their commitment to the struggle for equal rights for all Americans regardless of their color or socioeconomic circumstances. Both were members of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s inner circle. Although John Lewis was more widely known, they both were awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by former President Barack Obama—Lewis in 2011 and Vivian in 2013.
I was blessed to have met both legends. I met Rev. C.T. Vivian during his visit to Saint Paul Community Baptist Church back in the late 1980s. It was the place I was baptized in black culture and history. The pastor, Dr. Johnny Ray Youngblood, brought many incredibly gifted black thinkers to the church to raise the consciousness of the congregation. Dr. Frances Cress Welsing, Dr. Amos Wilson, Dr. Maulana Karenga, Dr. Na’im Akbar, and Dr. Alvin Poussaint were just a few who graced us with their incredible intellect. I would volunteer to pick them up from the airport and take them to their hotel which gave me the opportunity to talk with them one-on-one. C.T. Vivian was a remarkable man. Dr. King considered him to be the greatest preacher to ever live.
I had several encounters with Congressman Lewis during my years on the Hill. I remember how nervous I was the first time I visited his office in the Cannon Building. It was a feeling similar to how I felt the first time I visited Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and stood in the pulpit where Dr. King had preached to the world. It made you feel like you were a part of history. Congressman Lewis was remarkable among Members of Congress. Too many seemed to be consumed by their self-importance. Congressman Lewis was the epitome of humility. Despite his legendary resume and historic experiences, he was a gentle giant, speaking softly and passionately about the issues confronting the country.
There were times that he expressed outrage. One was his reaction to the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in Shelby v. Holder in 2013 that removed preclearance obligations for states with histories of voting bias. That awful verdict opened the door for increased instances of voter suppression that continue to this day. Lewis led the House effort to restore preclearance with the passage of H.R. 4 – the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2019. It sits dormant in the Senate’s Committee on the Judiciary. Should Democrats regain control of the Senate in November, one of their first actions should be the passage of that legislation renamed in honor of John Lewis.
Congressman Lewis appreciated social workers. He had two senior staffers with MSW degrees. Michael Collins, his longtime chief of staff, earned his MSW degree at Boston College. Thomas Dorney a senior legislative aide, earned his MSW at the National Catholic School of Social Service. Tom is very supportive of the Congressional Social Work Caucus and participated in many of CRISP’s events. My condolence goes out to both of them and their fellow staffers who will sorely miss the presence of their leader.
One cannot help but be inspired by women and men like John Lewis and C.T. Vivian. They dedicated their entire lives to the cause of fairness and justice. Congressman Lewis’s sacrifice on the Edmund Pettis Bridge secured a place for him in the hall of heroes. C.T. Vivian’s unceasing efforts to promote civil and human rights earned him a notable place in history. I spoke with former Congressman Ed Towns about the passing of his two friends. He and Congressman Lewis were members of the Phi Beta Sigma fraternity and spent decades together in Congress. He, Lewis, and Vivian were ordained preachers and often spent time together. He is saddened by their passing and believes they will continue to have an impact on the country for years to come.