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Footprints All Over This Land

Three Monumental Figures of the Civil Rights Movement: Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, C. T. Vivian and John Lewis

Three great leaders of the movement left us this year. We are grateful to live in an area with a sea of civil rights leaders and activists who knew them.

The gravity of Dr. Martin Luther King’s poignant words from his mountaintop speech foreseeing his own fate before his assassination believing “longevity has its place,” is only one of a number of prophetic statements he’s made. Living out his words, they lived with the purpose they were charged, while being instrumental in mobilizing massive numbers of people.

Andrew Young graciously shares insight into these leaders he considers his mentors.

Their journey as foot soldiers began with the economic crippling of the public bus transportation system due to the arrest of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955. As they set out to end segregation and Jim Crow laws from America’s infrastructure, “to redeem the soul of America, starting with racial segregation, Rosa Parks and most black people rode the buses,” says Young.

Young, emphasizing the equally vital roles of women in the Movement, tells how they all dealt with death. Acknowledging their own mortality, men and women, black and white, lived the credo, “We probably will get killed before 40, if not keep on until we are 100,” he says.

Remembering Joseph E. Lowery  

“He was a leader who organized on a board level. He was a good preacher with a great sense of humor. The only way you deal with hatred and violence was through laughter as a way to cope,” Young recalls.

Though Rev. Lowery’s words were sometimes humorous, there was no mistaking the preciseness of his message, like the time he went to order a burger in Nashville. Being told, “Sir, we don’t serve negroes here,” he responded, “Ma’am, I don’t eat negroes. I’d like a hamburger and a coke.”

He was co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Rev. Lowery passed on March 27 at the age of 98.

Remembering Cordy Tindell (C.T.) Vivian  

“Vivian was the most disciplined and calm, and serious for all those years serving the Movement,” Young recalls. “He was active as far back as the 40s,” participating in the sit-ins in Peoria, Illinois, at the A&P in Greensboro, North Carolina—those were the first sit-ins, and in Nashville studying and training. The training [for the Movement] was modeled out of the Nashville training, working with Jim Lawson.

During a voter registration attempt on the courthouse steps in Selma, confronting Sheriff Jim Clark who blocked entry into the building, C.T. Vivian was struck in the mouth by Clark, fell down the stairs, and was taken to jail.

C.T. Vivian was a close advisor to Dr. King and founded numerous organizations.

Remembering John. R. Lewis

“John started when he was 15. He wanted to integrate Troy University. John wrote Martin a letter. Martin sent him a bus ticket. All his life, he used his life to redeem the soul of America,” Young says.  

John Lewis and Hosea Williams led marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the day known as Bloody Sunday, when he was severely beaten. He headed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The orator held office for the Fifth Congressional District of Georgia for 30 years.

C.T. Vivian at 95 and John Lewis at 80, both passed on July 17.

Each of these three leaders received countless awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama.

“There is no noise as powerful as the sound of the marching feet of a determined people.”

–Dr. King

Many historians document the Movement as beginning in the late 50s and ending in the 60s. Young says, “the Movement was their lifetime commitment for freedom for all…” Because of their pledge, it never truly ended.

Armed with unwavering, peaceful footsteps that were continuously righting and writing the truth into American history, now those footsteps turned to footprints spread all over this land, embedded in this Nation’s soil leaving an indelible trail of instructions for us and future generations. Able to apply peaceful resistance to address overt, systemic, social and environmental racism; voting rights and voter suppression; poverty and economic disparities; police brutality; educational and empowerment training; and climate change.

These civil rights leaders went on to establish vital institutions and foundations, influenced public policy, and continued calling out racial and economic oppressive practices.

Environmental racism being at the forefront for decades, the past few years, Congressman Lewis spoke heavily on the issue of climate change. He expressed, “we have a mission, a mandate, and a moral obligation to leave this little planet we call Earth a little cleaner and a little greener for generations yet unborn.” Blessing us with further instructions for a global movement to save humanity and the planet while we still can.

Thankful for those everlasting peaceful footprints that we continue to follow, still we miss them.

Photos courtesy of the following:

  • Andrew J. Young Foundation / Auburn Avenue Research Library
  • C.T. Vivian Leadership Institute / Rivers Productions
  • Joseph & Evelyn Lowery Institute / Sue Ross 
  • Photo by Susan Ross