Tonight U.S. Congressman John Lewis and the Rev. C. T. Vivian will sit down to Sunday dinner with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for the first time in over 50 years.
There will be others at that table — Evers, Parks, Bayard, Baldwin, X, Chavez and more. DuBois, Douglass, and Garvey will be looking in as well.
And all will be unified by one thing: “good trouble, necessary trouble.”
Visualizing this moment inspires me and should inspire all of us.
John Lewis was 80 years old Friday when pancreatic cancer ended the amazing odyssey of the son of sharecroppers whose body was marked by the blows from police batons at Selma, and who became “the conscience of the Congress.”
“I have been in some kind of fight — for freedom, equality, basic human rights — for nearly my entire life,” Lewis said. That was how he approached his battle with cancer, as another fight that could ravage his body but could not diminish his spirit.
I once moderated an interview in which Lewis interacted with Sen. Chris Coons and an aspiring Gov. John Carney. I recall vividly that he was one of the only famous people I ever met who became more impressive rather than less so at close range. He had so thoroughly devoted his life to the cause of human equality that it radiated from his diminutive frame like the a clear, full moon.
He was the apostle of both non-violence and “good trouble,” a sacrificial lamb for all that is fair and just and true. Lewis consistently said, “We need someone who will stand up and speak up and speak out for the people who need help, for people who are being discriminated against. And it doesn’t matter whether they are black or white, Latino, Asian or Native American, whether they are straight or gay, Muslim, Christian,or Jews.”
Fighting for our nation’s highest ideals was his “good trouble, necessary trouble.”
Cordy Tindell Vivian was less well-known when he left the world Friday just shy of his 96th birthday, but he is remembered by those in the movement as Dr. King’s “field general” for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
In 1970 his Black Power and the American Myth laid out clearly why the Civil Rights movement had been so successful.
Success rested first on a clear vision: “It was Martin Luther King who removed the Black struggle from the economic realm and placed it in a moral and spiritual context. It was on this plane that The Movement first confronted the conscience of the nation.”
From there, Vivian noted, the essential tactical decisions followed. First, there had to a new condition of valuing activism in the Black community, and it had to all-inclusive. In particular, the emerging Black middle class could not sit idly by.
Once the community was mobilized, there had to be a new set of tactics for social action that the enemies of change had never faced before: sustained non-violent protest.
Finally, Vivian understood that the movement had to bring about significant social change in the values of the whole country, and that, once started, there could be no turning back halfway to the goal.
His signature quotation was, “You are made by the struggles you choose.”
To lose two winners of the Presidential Medal of Freedom is both gut-wrenching and a signal to those of us who remain.
When we remember the 1960s in Delaware, we recall the young students from then-Delaware State College and the University of Delaware conducting the 1962 sit-in at the Hollywood Diner, the 1968 occupation of Wilmington by the Army National Guard following King’s assassination, and our own alumna, Dr.Reba Hollingsworth, wading into the conflict over school integration following the Brown decision.
Those were the struggles that — on a national level — became a life’s work for John Lewis and C.T. Vivian.
Plenty of struggles exist in 2020 to galvanize the next generation of leaders. Black citizens remain three times as likely to be killed by law enforcement as white Americans. We have incarcerated entire generations of Black men for victimless crimes. Since 1968 Black families’ wealth has remained at only 10 percent of their white neighbors. Education and health care outcomes show similar disparities.
If Black Lives Matter, there is work to be done by all. Brother Lewis once said, “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?” We all should honor his legacy — and that of Rev. Vivian — by always answering “US!” and “NOW.”
Good Trouble …
Tony Allen is president of Delaware State University.