With the passing of C.T. Vivian, John Lewis – Atlanta loses two pillars of its greatest generation
By Maria Saporta
It felt like a gut punch. Losing C.T. Vivian and John Lewis on the same day – July 17 – was almost too much to bear.
The phrase I kept repeating in my head was: “We are losing Atlanta’s greatest generation.”
Or to put it another way, we are losing the legends who stood side-by-side with Martin Luther King Jr. fighting for a more just and peaceful world.
Without a doubt, 2020 has been an extraordinarily difficult year. Beyond the coronavirus and the racial unrest, we also lost Joseph Lowery, Anne Cox Chambers and Connie Curry, two other soldiers in arms in the civil rights movement.
In Atlanta, it’s easy to take these people for granted. We are so fortunate to have walked alongside these icons of the civil rights movement, to have listened to their words of wisdom and to have been refreshed by their spiritual fountain.
Many stalwarts of Atlanta’s greatest generation live on, and we should appreciate every day we have with them – Andrew Young, Ted Turner, Jimmy Carter, Rosalynn Carter, Shirley Franklin, Xernona Clayton, Sam Nunn, Jim Laney, Robert Franklin, Charlie Loudermilk, Sam Massell, to name a few.
And yet, it pains me to know they are all getting older, and that one day, they too will leave us. The thought of losing them hits us personally because we have come to know each and every one of them.
Given my state of melancholy, I called Andrew Young at home on Sunday evening. He had just finished participating in the Zoom memorial service in honor of Connie Curry.
I just needed to touch base – to be sure he was doing okay – physically and spiritually. I should not have worried.
The first thing out of Young’s mouth was to quote from an old Negro spiritual: “Lord, I keep so busy serving my Master, ain’t got time to die.”
When he talked about the death of Vivian and Lewis, Young said: “I almost envy them,” Young said. “Death is never something I’ve been scared of. King used to say death is the ultimate democracy.”
Then Young took the long view.
“The distance between life and death is not nearly as vast as we portend it to be. I don’t think Martin has gone anywhere,” Young said. “John and C.T. were friends. The way I look at it, they don’t have to go to heaven along, and now they can join Connie Curry.”
To really feel the weight of the moment, over the weekend I watched and listened to tributes and videos of Vivian and Lewis.
One special video was shot during the Points of Light conference in 2014. Bernice King, CEO of the King Center and MLK’s youngest child, moderated a conversation between Vivian, Lewis and Young.
They all were disciples of King, and each of them shared King’s messages of love.
Vivian remarked that all three of them started out as ministers who wanted to change the world. “You have to value truth. You have to value justice,” he said. “Love people.”
At one point, Young turned to Bernice King: “I’m still trying to complete your father’s work. He said he wanted to redeem the soul of America from the triple evils of racism, war and poverty. We haven’t done enough to end poverty.”
Later Young continued: “Your father said there are two requirements for social change, or he said to be a man. You have to overcome the love of wealth and the fear of death. If you are in love with money, you can’t change. And if you fear death, you cannot change. But if you overcome the love of money and the fear of death, you’re free.”
At the end of the program, Lewis also addressed Bernice: “I remember your father saying: ‘Just love everybody; just love the hell out of everybody.’”
Someone else also gave me comfort over the weekend.
My unlikely friend, Tyler Perry, instinctively texted me Saturday afternoon to see how I was doing. I shared that I was really hurting inside because of the back-to-back deaths of Vivian and Lewis.
Perry then responded with the following text (which he said I could share):
I’ve got to tell you when I think about those giant souls, I’m not sad at all. I’m grateful that they came before me. I’m thankful for their sacrifice. I’m thankful for their examples. And I also over-stand the exhaustion of the fight for equality.
It takes a toll on a person, and between the two of them, they had 175 years of fighting that battle.
There comes a time when the soul gets to lay down the banner and rest. They both had extraordinary lives! And they will forever be remembered in history. I would not be who I am without their strength, courage and wisdom.
Because death is a part of life, I will be at peace with their passing.
I would just hope to honor their memories by doing all I can to be the best man I can be, and in some way, have that kind of impact on moving a people forward.
Words for all of us to live by.