Monthly Archives: July 2020

John Lewis and C.T. Vivian

This past week the United States lost two civil rights activists: John Lewis and C.T. Vivian.  While most people are probably more familiar with Lewis, the two activists worked together in Nashville in 1960 on the sit-in campaign.  Vivian was about fifteen years older than Lewis who was a college student at Fisk University and became a leader in the movement there along with other activists including Diane Nash.  Vivian was part of the cohort, led by James Lawson, who ran workshops to train the younger activists in nonviolent organizing strategies.

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The young activists who participated in the sit-ins to desegregate lunch counters in Nashville were physically attacked and jailed.  John Lewis described what that was like:

“Growing up in the rural South, you learned it was not the thing to do.  To go to jail was to bring shame and disgrace on the family.  But for me it was like being involved in a holy crusade, it became a badge of honor.  I think it was in keeping with that we had been taught in the workshops, so I felt very good, in the sense of righteous indignation, about being arrested, but at the same time I felt the commitment and dedication on the part of the students.”

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An economic boycott of all of the downtown stores put pressure on the city to confront the issue of segregation and enabled the entire town to mobilize around the issue of injustice.  When the home of a prominent Black lawyer, Z. Alexander Looby, was bombed, the students and other activists marched to City Hall to speak with the Mayor.  C.T. Vivian characterized it as “the first big march of the movement.”  He continued:

“We filled Jefferson Avenue: it’s a long, long way down Jefferson.  After a while there was a bit of singing, and as we came closer to town, it was merely the silence of the feet.  We walked by a place where there were workers out for the noon hour, white workers, and they had never seen anything like this.  Here was all of four thousand people marching down the street, and all you could hear was our feet as we silently moved, and they didn’t know what to do.  … There was a fear there, there was an awe there.  They knew that this was not to be stopped, this was not to be played with or joked with.”

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The discussion with Mayor Ben West turned out to be an important turning point in the Nashville campaign.  When confronted by Vivian and Nash, West admitted that he thought it was wrong for the citizens of Nashville to be discriminated against solely on the basis of their race.  The bombing of Looby’s home had created a strong momentum against segregation that motivated thousands to march and ultimately created an opening for a powerful expression against injustice.

Today, we face another opening for expressions against injustice and progressive movement.  The deaths of these two leaders at such a pivotal time seems to point to the responsibilities for those of us who are still here.  Vivian and Lewis, and so many others, made their contributions to the struggle against injustice.  And now it is our turn, the younger generations, to stand up and make our contributions to the ongoing movement.  Making a commitment is the first step to finding a personal stake, locating our own talents that can serve the movement.  If you worry that you don’t know what to do or whether you are strong enough, the activists in 1960 felt the same way.  Diane Nash summarized:

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“I remember realizing that with what we were doing, trying to abolish segregation, we were coming up against governors, judges, politicians, businessmen, and I remember thinking, I’m only twenty-two years old, what do I know, what am I doing? … The movement had a way of reaching inside you and bringing out things you didn’t even know were there.  Such as courage.”

Looking to their examples of courage from the past, we must look inside ourselves and allow the movement of today to reveal the parts that we will play in this next chapter of the struggle.

All quotes from: Henry Hampton and Steve Fayer, editors, Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s through the 1980s (New York: Bantam Books, 1990).

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Looking at the Civil Rights Act from 2020

The summer of 2020 is a good time to ruminate upon the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as July 2nd marks the fifty-sixth anniversary of this significant legislation.  The law originally outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, and sex, and it was extended in June by the Supreme Court to include protections for LGBTQ citizens as well.  In the ‘60s it represented a culminating moment in the history of the nonviolent protests of Black Americans because it helped dismantle de jure segregation.  It was also a climax in the legislative battle against entrenched Southern Democrats.  History books often simplify the passage of this bill into a discernible moment of completion in the classical phase of the civil rights movement.  Racial segregation was declared illegal; thus, a primary goal of direct-action nonviolence had been met.

Yet, as the succeeding decades have demonstrated, the law has not purged the country of racism or even the vestiges of de facto racial segregation.  In the speech delivered the day he signed the Civil Rights Act, President Lyndon Johnson seemed to sense that a single law would not eliminate the racist mindset that permeated America.  He hinted at the possibility of a longer struggle when he noted that freedom could “be secure only if each generation fought to renew and enlarge its meaning.”  We have witnessed this year one way for the Civil Rights Act to be renewed and enlarged to include homosexual and transgender people and this is quite promising.

However, as the summer protests against police brutality have demonstrated, there is still much work to do to eliminate institutionalized racism in the U.S.  Johnson pointed out that the Civil Rights Act represented “a challenge to all of us to go to work in our communities and our States, in our homes and in our hearts, to eliminate the last vestiges of injustice in our beloved country.”  A law, no matter how morally sound, can only alter the outward trappings of racism like segregation signs and hiring policies, it cannot transform individual hearts.  If there is no collective action coupled with moral courage to dismantle the status quo of white privilege and create something new and more egalitarian, then the poison of racism is not alleviated, it is only slightly abated.  This is where we are today, half a century later.  We have all drunk from springs poisoned by white supremacy, male dominance, and profit over people.  These were the foundational practices of the United States from the earliest days of colonial settlement in North America.  None of the rhetoric of natural rights, that emerged during the Revolutionary era, changed those basic practices.  They are still the norm today.

And they will continue to be the norm until more people heed the call that Johnson made at the close of his speech.  He urged “every public official, every religious leader, every business and professional man, every workingman, every housewife—I urge every American—to join in this effort to bring justice and hope to all our people—and to bring peace to our land.”  Only a united front of action such as suggested here will truly transform the nation and, in Johnson’s words, “close the springs of racial poison.”  Every individual American must make a commitment to stand against racism every day in order for those poisoned springs to be closed for good.  2020 has already been a historic year.  Let it be the year that the United States finally locates its moral consciousness and begins to systematically eliminate racism in individual hearts and across institutions with committed action.  The pandemic has laid bare the extent of the poison in U.S. society.  The only question now that remains is what will our generation do with this moment?

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