Congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis and civil rights leader C.T. Vivian both passed away yesterday (July 17, 2020), but what I know to be true is that their impact shines brightly and burns fiercely in the hearts and lives of all of us. We must continue to carry the torch of freedom, justice, and equality they both held and use it to illuminate those dark places they fought tirelessly to eradicate from our society.Congressman Lewis’ impact will forever be part of the rich history of this country and his legacy and legend are a part of our evolving story in Atlanta Public Schools (APS).
The district opened the John Lewis Invictus Academy in the fall of 2017 in honor of the life and towering voice of John Lewis. Nestled in the Douglass Cluster, John Lewis Invictus Academy serves as a comprehensive three-year public middle school, enrolling 6th through 8th graders. Our students are instilled with the unconquerable spirit that is John Lewis and with the pride and hope of being the change agents of a better world.
In celebrating the opening of John Lewis Invictus Academy, John Lewis said that education is the great equalizer. “If it hadn’t been for education, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” he shared.
His life story is a story of perseverance and pain, a story of victories and setbacks, a story of truth and triumph. It’s a story of the undying power of hope and optimism. It truly is our American story.
Born in Troy, Alabama on February 21, 1940, as the son of sharecroppers, John Lewis, at one point in his life, had dreams of becoming a preacher. As he grew up and became more involved in the civil rights movement, taking great inspiration from the activism of Martin Luther King Jr., his life path changed.
In 1965, Lewis famously co-led the march across the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama. It was during that March that he and other activists were attacked by police, injuring Lewis and fracturing his skull. That march would later become known as Bloody Sunday.
John Lewis was elected to Congress, representing Georgia’s 5th Congressional District in Washington, D.C., in 1986 and has held that seat ever since. In his many years representing Atlanta in Congress, John Lewis was an unwavering supporter of public education – students, teachers and schools.
In a 2017 interview with the Harvard Gazette, when Lewis was asked whether he feels like he has achieved what he set out to accomplish, he said:
“What I think is important is that we have not yet created the “beloved community.” We’re not there; we still have a distance to go. The signs that I saw growing up, the signs that I saw in Nashville, in Atlanta, and all across the South during the ’50s and ’60s that said “white men/colored men, white women/colored women, white boys/colored boys,” those signs are gone. And the only place those signs today would appear and we would see them would be in a book, in a museum, or in a video. But we have these invisible signs that discriminate or put people down.”
When Congressman Lewis shared the heartbreaking news of his battle with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer in December 2019, we all rallied behind him even more as the unquenchable fighter in him kept pressing forward.
As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi shared the news of his passing with the world last night, it was like the strong wind in our sails suddenly stopped. APS, our nation, and the world mourns the loss of this civil rights giant.
Coupled with Lewis’ loss, we are also mourning the loss of another civil rights icon, the Rev. Cordy Tindell “C.T.” Vivian. He, too, passed away on July 17, 2020, of natural causes at the age 95. A close friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., C.T. Vivian was a distinguished minister, author, and civil rights leader who continued to fight for justice for everyone everywhere.
In coming to Atlanta in the 1970s, C.T. Vivian founded the Black Action Strategies and Information Center (BASICS), a consultancy on multiculturalism and race relations in the workplace. Throughout his life, he worked tirelessly on race relations efforts, speaking in the United States and across the globe. In 2008, Vivian founded the C. T. Vivian Leadership Institute, Inc. to “Create a Model Leadership Culture in Atlanta” Georgia.
Both Lewis and Vivian were awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom (the nation’s highest civilian honor) by President Obama. Atlantans are honored to share our city and communities with real-life heroes.
In bestowing the honor on Congressman Lewis in 2011, President Obama said in part, “And generations from now, when parents teach their children what is meant by courage, the story of John Lewis will come to mind — an American who knew that change could not wait for some other person or some other time; whose life is a lesson in the fierce urgency of now.”
When honoring C.T. Vivian with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013, President Obama said, “Equipped only with courage and an overwhelming commitment to social justice, the Reverend C.T. Vivian was a stalwart activist on the march toward racial equality. Whether at a lunch counter, on a Freedom Ride, or behind the bars of a prison cell, he was unafraid to take bold action in the face of fierce resistance.”
With the passing of John Lewis and C.T. Vivian, we now feel a collective sense of great loss and are left to process more emotional trauma even as we grapple with an unprecedented global pandemic.
But even in this difficult moment, we must adopt Congressman Lewis and C.T. Vivian’s fighting spirits and forge forward.
We mush cherish and celebrate the legacy they left us. And, in their honor, we must all commit to being active participants in building a beloved community that our world still so desperately needs.
“I discovered that you have to have this sense of faith that what you’re moving toward is already done.”
“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.”