Statement on the Passing of the Rev. C.T. Vivian and U.S. Rep. John Lewis

You can turn your back on me, but you cannot turn your back upon the idea of justice. You can turn your back now and you can keep your club in your hand, but you cannot beat down justice…

C.T. Vivian addressing Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark, Selma, 1965

We are tired; We are tired of being beaten by policemen. We are tired of seeing our people arrested… We want our freedom and we want it now. We do not want to go to jail. But we will go to jail if this is the price we must pay for love, brotherhood, and true peace.

John Lewis, March on Washington, 1963

Phillips Theological Seminary mourns with the nation in the passing of the Rev. Cordy Tindell (C.T.) Vivian (1924–2020) and U.S. Rep. John Robert Lewis (1940–2020). We celebrate their lives of service as iconic leaders of Civil and Human Rights: lives dedicated to the causes of love and racial and social justice. As scions of the beloved community, they were committed to the spirit of nonviolent resistance, exemplars of moral courage, and provocateurs for human dignity. Both souls took flight, within hours of one another, on Friday, July 17, 2020.

As this nation bids farewell to these two agents of change, the Black Church Traditions and African American Faith-Life program (BCTAFL) at Phillips Theological Seminary honors their devotion to nonviolent resistance, and we thank them for their clarion call to the nation to treat all with liberty and equality. We offer our prayers and condolences to the families and friends of the Rev. C.T. Vivian and Rep. John Lewis.

As we mourn the passing of these great revolutionaries, we celebrate the fruit of their hands, hearts, and toil. Their dedication to nonviolent protest stirred a community and touched the world.

Rooted in both a resolute faith and spiritual call, their belief in the beloved community prohibited silence, demanded action, and sought collaboration; it provoked a courageous faith that enlivened people to confront corrupt pretenses of democracy with righteous demands for truth and justice. Their works were expressions of Black faith and life being a synthesis of the spiritual, religious, and political. 

Rev. Vivian, born in rural Missouri, recognized the moral and theological impacts of racial discrimination and economic and social injustice early in his life. In 1947, Vivian already found himself in the movement helping desegregate a restaurant in Peoria, Illinois.

A founding member of the Nashville Christian Leadership Conference, Rev. Vivian became a key figure within the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) at the height of the Civil Rights movement, joining its executive staff as Martin Luther King, Jr.’s national director of affiliates.

Vivian led sit-ins, marches, voter registration drives, and wade-ins across the country. Following the 1960s, he continued challenging and nonviolently disrupting systems of injustice as a strategist, minister, organizer, activist, author, educator, and divinity school dean.

Rep. Lewis grew up in rural Alabama. At just 23 years old, he stood in the White House with the likes of A. Phillip Randolph and Martin L. King, Jr. as the youngest of the “Big Six” who met with President Kennedy in 1963. From 1963-1966, he was Chairman [sic] of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). As the representative voice of a younger, activist generation, Lewis delivered one of the more revolution-oriented speeches at the 1963 March on Washington. After serving briefly within President Carter’s administration, Lewis served on Atlanta’s city council and then represented Georgia’s 5th Congressional District for 18 terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.

There is a poignant chirality between the biographies of Vivian, the Midwestern, SCLC minister, and Lewis, the Southern, SNCC, politician, that mirrors the wide-ranging significance of theological education toward social change. Their lives intersected at Nashville’s American Baptist Theological Seminary (now, American Baptist College). Nashville provided them a nurturing environment, in part, because of a vibrant ethos conditioned by serious, justice-oriented theological education that was ripe for social change.

The contributions and legacies of the Rev. C.T. Vivian and Rep. John Lewis charge all institutions of theological education to take seriously their responsibilities for preparing workers for this generation’s continued strivings toward the beloved community. As the vestiges of white supremacy splinter society by stoking racialized fear and anxiety, the BCTAFL is inspired by the lives and legacies of Lewis and Vivian.

The Black Church Traditions and African American Faith-Life program at Phillips Theological Seminary celebrates the revolutionary impulse of C.T. Vivian and John Lewis. Whereas the pall of racism and economic exploitation continues to shadow this nation’s future with resurgent voter suppression, insidious police brutality, and rampant economic, ecological, and health inequalities, the BCTAFL is committed to educational endeavors to push, inform, train, and prepare this generation’s ministers, servants, and provocateurs for justice to work toward the establishment of a beloved community and a more just society.

Through the attentive and contextual study of Black Church traditions and African American religiosity, we aspire to be a learning community that responds to the lives they modeled: a community seeking to educate persons to be both attentive to God and faithfully act with God to transform the world.

Reverend Vivian and Rep. Lewis devoted themselves at an early age to a movement that Alice Walker, in the late 1960s, adroitly described as a calling to life. 

It gave us history and men [and women] far greater than Presidents. It gave us heroes, selfless [people] of courage and strength, for our little boys and girls to follow. It gave us hope for tomorrow. It called us to life. Because we live, it can never die.*

This movement was collaborative, communal, and life giving. Rev. C.T. Vivian and Rep. John Lewis now join in rest with co-laborers Toni Morrison (1931–2019), Rep. Elijah Cummings (1951–2019), Katherine C. Johnson (1918–2020), the Rt. Rev. Barbara C. Harris (1930–2020), the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery (1921–2020), and the Rev. Harry Blake (1934–2020) still calling for justice and love.

This cloud of witnesses, with scores of other committed, toiled for the beloved community we long for. We are thankful for their commitment to service. We are thankful for their charge. May our teaching celebrate their lives as we pursue a just, beloved community. Amen.

* Quote taken from Alice Walker’s “In Search of Our Mother’s Garden.”

Dr. Arthur F. Carter, Jr. is Assistant Professor of New Testament and Director of the Black Church Traditions and African American Faith-Life program at Phillips Theological Seminary