Three Giants

By Ambassador Andrew Young

Three giants have gone to glory — the Rev. Joseph Lowery, the Rev. C.T. Vivian and Congressman John Lewis. My mentors and leaders and brothers and friends departed this earth in the midst of the coronavirus — though none was a victim of the virus. They were all three victims of nearly a century of sacrificial service to humanity and to this nation.

John Lewis, as our congressman, got a chance to say goodbye and pass his legacy on to the young people of Black Lives Matter when he stood on 16th St in Washington, D.C. He bowed his head and crossed his arms in Wakanda fashion before coming home to Atlanta to die. I was at his home when he arrived, and I could see at that moment as he lay in his bed that he was ready to go on to glory.

Nobody had done any more, suffered any more, dreamed any more, or planned any more than Congressman John Lewis. But, without the Rev. C.T. Vivian and the Rev. Joseph Lowery, John Lewis might not have had the impact that he had on this nation if he had not met Rev. Vivian and Rev. Lowery when he was 18 years old.

Joe Lowery was a distinguished Methodist pastor of Warren Street United Methodist Church in Mobile, Ala. Joe strove to be the voice of the disenfranchised. He probably would have been the first Black bishop of the United Methodist Church had he not been such an activist. Joe understood that the poor were being gerrymandered and their votes suppressed, and he was the voice of those people. In the very early days in the 1950s, while he was pastor, he assisted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., with the Montgomery Bus Boycott in his position as leader of the Alabama Civic Affairs Association, an organization devoted to the desegregation of buses and public places. Following that, he worked with Dr. King to establish the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in New Orleans in 1957. He served as its chairman until Dr. King's death. Then he took over the leadership of SCLC serving as its president and CEO until his retirement in 1998.

Like Lowery, the Rev. C.T. Vivian combined faith and activism. He began his service to the nation and to God in 1947 in Peoria, Ill., when he led sit-ins. This was long before any of us were involved in nonviolent direct action. C.T. has always been one of the people who had the most insight, wisdom, integrity and dedication. C.T. moved to Nashville in 1960 to serve the National Baptist Publishing House. He joined his friend Jim Lawson and Kelly Miller Smith in establishing a workshop to train the Nashville sit-in movement in the finer points of nonviolent social action. They deliberately set the training time for 6 a.m.

Many of the young leaders of the '60s came out of the Nashville movement to literally change the world. They elected John Lewis as the first president of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). C.T. was one of John's teachers. Though there were hundreds of brilliant, articulate, and aggressive leaders, including Diane Nash, James Bevel and Bernard Lafayette, C.T. was chosen as the SNCC chairman because nobody could match him in courage. He demonstrated fearlessness and determination in the sit-ins and later in the freedom rides that demanded everyone's respect. He was 96 the day he died.

Together these three giants represented a century of suffering, sacrifice and leadership without which America would not be the nation it is today. None of us would enjoy the fruits of their attempts at abolishing legal segregation and affirming voting rights. From Nashville, Mobile, Atlanta, Greensboro and New Orleans, they represent the foundation of social change in this century.

Only John was privileged to stand tall and humbly pass the torch on to the most powerful demonstration that the world has ever seen. Montgomery, Birmingham, Selma, Chicago, were all very effective movements with hundreds of dedicated foot soldiers. But thanks to social media and cellphones, the Black Lives Matter movement reached millions around the world in a matter of a few hours.

It is a new day, a new movement led by a new generation. But it is a movement that was built on the foundation laid by the work of King, Ralph Abernathy, Hosea Williams, Roy Wilkins, Thurgood Marshall and Constance Baker Motley, to name a few. Lewis, Lowery and Vivian join a pantheon of Saints who have paved the way for this nation's survival and triumph over the plagues of racism, war and poverty. They passed the baton. They are now at rest.

Andrew Young is a longtime civil rights activist. A close confidant to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., during the Civil Rights Movement, he served as executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Young is a former member of the United States House of Representatives and a former United States ambassador to the United Nations. He also served as mayor of Atlanta (1982-1990).