Over the weekend, the civil rights community suffered the loss of two giants in the movement—the Rev. C.T. Vivian (95) and Rep. John Lewis (80). As the nation grapples with protests and demands for racial equality, we remember their unwavering commitment to social, racial and economic justice. Both friends to labor and colleagues of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., their lives were the embodiment of “good trouble, necessary trouble.”
John Lewis, a revered member of Congress serving in Georgia’s 5th District for more than three decades—and the longest-serving member of the Congressional Black Caucus—carried his passion for equal rights throughout his career. He began his fight for civil rights by using his young voice to dismantle the Jim Crow South. At age 23, Lewis was the youngest person to speak at the historic 1963 March on Washington. He also participated in lunch counter sit-ins, joined the Freedom Riders in their quest to register Black voters, and helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Most notably, Lewis was on the front lines of the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, to demand African Americans’ constitutional right to vote.
C.T. Vivian was a minister, civil rights leader and key adviser to King, organizing critical civil rights campaigns that shaped our country. His work spans more than six decades beginning with sit-in demonstrations in Peoria, Illinois, in the 1940s—more than a dozen years before the momentous lunch counter protests made national news. Referred to by King as "the greatest preacher to ever live," Vivian was a national director of affiliates for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and an active participant in the Freedom Rides in Mississippi, which made headlines across the South.
President Obama honored both Vivian and Lewis with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, noting their lifelong work and commitment to the movement for equal rights.
The labor and civil rights communities mourn their deaths and take this moment to celebrate the incredible work they led. In remembrance of their legacies, we will continue to carry the torch for social justice and equality for all.
As we face a new wave of vicious attacks aimed at dismantling the voting rights for which these brothers so valiantly fought, we must be more resolved than ever to restore the Voting Rights Act, combat voter suppression and ensure every eligible voter in our nation is registered. As Lewis once said, “The vote is precious. It is almost sacred. It is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have in a democracy." It is our duty to protect and defend this tool, and may the passing of these civil rights giants renew our commitment to the fight for fairness, equity and justice.