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.
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.”
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.”
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:
“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).