Occasionally your words take you where you had no intention of going. As a white person that grew up in the segregated south, I would never have dreamed that my path would cross with the two civil rights giants that died this past week.
Reverend C. T. Vivian and Representative John Lewis both were at the forefront of the struggle for the civil rights of minorities. They were leaders in the movement when I was still in elementary school, totally unaware of the swirling currents of change that still ebb and flow to this day.
Both Vivian and Lewis practiced non-violence even as they were beaten and challenged by angry mobs everywhere during those early days. It takes a great man to turn the other cheek in the face of such hostility, but in doing so they paved the way for much of the progress that has occurred in the past 55 years.
The Hate Crimes speech that eventually resulted in my receiving the John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage Award, gave me an opportunity to interact with both men..
Emory University initiated a program called “Hearings for Healings: Testimonies on Racism and Reconciliation.” C. T. Vivian and I were the speakers at the first meeting. While the emphasis was on racial healing and reconciliation, I realized after the program that no words on my part could compare with the experiences of Vivian.
We were from two different generations and from two different worlds. I could not imagine his journey, yet he recognized that the battles against racism were won one day, one person at a time. We shook hands recognizing our differences while remaining committed to a better future for all.
Later, National Public Radio conducted a program featuring John Lewis and myself. Although we were in different recording studios in different states, I was drawn to Lewis’ manner during our time together. In our discussion, he was courteous, gracious, and treated me with total respect.
I left that interview so impressed with Lewis. He treated me as an equal which I knew was not the case. I followed his career in the years that followed, always aware that he did know how to make good trouble. A native of Troy, Alabama, Lewis served Atlanta for over 30 years in the House of Representatives. His unwavering commitment to doing what was right resulted in him becoming widely known as the conscience of Congress.
I find it so sad that in the nearly two decades since I met Vivian and Lewis, Americans are still talking and fighting about race and inequality. The non-violent path these men took opened so many doors and resulted in long overdue change. How we need that same leadership now.
It is ironic that two giants of the civil rights movement died within 24 hours of each other. I was nothing more than a small footnote in the long careers of these men. However, the opportunity to personally interact with these men gave me a chance to form my own opinion.
These were men who used faith, courage, and a sense of right to confront some of the darkest days of our nation. They worked tirelessly for change all the while advocating non-violence.
We, all of us, are better off for the work done by C. T. Vivian and John Lewis. Politics aside, they walked tall and straight and left a legacy that will stand the test of time. It was an honor to have known them, if only for the briefest of time.
Dan Ponder can be reached at [email protected]