Last Sunday, the daily newspaper in the city where I live displayed this headline on the front page: “Youth vote a surprise factor in runoffs.”
The writer observed with surprise the turnout of voters younger than age 40 in a runoff election a few days earlier. This would not have surprised Rev. Cordy Tindell Vivian or Rev. John Robert Lewis, because their decades-long political activism started when they were young men in their 20s.
These two frontline titans of the civil rights movement died last week on the same day—July 18—and in the same city—Atlanta, Ga. One died in the morning and the other died at night.
C.T. Vivian, age 95, was raised in the North in Illinois. John Lewis, age 80, was raised in the South in Alabama.
Geographical region and 15 years in age may have separated them, but the common enemies of racial hatred, racial discrimination, injustice, unjust laws and actions throughout America and their shared Christian faith and hope of justice through civil disobedience and non-violence united them.
This led to them not being silent about the injustices and mistreatment they, their fellow African Americans and others experienced, observed and heard about, resulting in both of them being arrested often, jailed, beaten and their lives threatened.
Yet, their lives showed they understood the intent and spirit of a Navajo Indian proverb that says, “You will be remembered forever by the tracks you leave.”
The tracks they made
Vivian, at age 23, first protested through a sit-in in Peoria, Ill., in 1947, and in 1964, he joined the civil rights fight in St. Augustine, Fla., where he was beaten, pushed into the ocean and nearly drowned.
At age 25, Lewis helped lead a march for voting rights on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., where heavily armed state and local police met him and other marchers and attacked them with clubs, fracturing Lewis’ skull. He also was a planner of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Both were freedom riders. These were civil rights activists who rode interstate buses into the segregated Southern United States in 1961 and subsequent years to challenge the Southern states’ non-enforcement of the U.S. Supreme Court decisions, which ruled segregated public buses were unconstitutional.
As a youngster, I first heard their names and about the “tracks of their lives” from my father, who was a Baptist pastor and Alabama civil rights leader in the 1950s and 1960s, participating in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Birmingham civil rights protests and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference founded by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. My father knew them from his civil rights work during the 1950s and 1960s.
Vivian and Lewis continued their civil rights work. Vivian became the president of the SCLC. Later, Lewis was elected a congressman from Georgia and acquired the moniker “the conscience of Congress.”
They received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, an award bestowed by the president of the United States to recognize people who have made “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors” for their lifetime of work in civil rights.
Tracking on biblical ground
These ordained Baptist ministers shared a sense of God’s calling and mission grounded in following Jesus Christ. They understood Jesus’ words: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). They embraced Jesus’ truthful declaration that “anyone who believes in me will do the same works I have done, and even greater works, because I am going to be with the Father” (John 14:12).
They made their tracks following Jesus Christ. We see them in their shared civil disobedient—yet non-violent—responses to the question in Micah 6:8: “And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
We also see how they expressed their convictions like Peter, John and the apostles in Acts 4:19, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God,” and Acts 5:29, “We must obey God rather than men.”
Although Vivian and Lewis have fallen, their work rises. Their lives and actions indicate they embraced the words of Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, former president of Morehouse College from 1940-67, whom Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described as his “spiritual mentor” and “intellectual father:” “We, today, stand on the shoulders of our predecessors who have gone before us. We, as their successors, must catch the torch of freedom and liberty passed on to us by our ancestors. We cannot lose in this battle.”
Perhaps these understandings were the bases of Vivian’s statement, “You cannot beat down justice,” and Lewis’ statements: “Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble,” and, “Come walk in my shoes.”
When we make tracks, we should expect others would at least see—if not follow—them. But as Vivian and Lewis tracked or followed Jesus, like his apostles and disciples, they needed to make their own tracks.
As I reflect on the lives of these men, it seems to me we have an opportunity to remember and see their tracks and perhaps try on their shoes, as we follow Jesus Christ and embrace Micah 6:8, “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
The end of your track making may come in the morning like C.T. Vivian or at night like John Robert Lewis. In the meantime, my brothers and sisters, let us look for each other’s tracks.
Pastor Joseph Parker Jr., Esq. is the senior pastor of David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in Austin. The views expressed are those solely of the author.