A personal remembrance of two civil rights giants
John Lewis at the 40th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus Bride in Selma, Alabama. | AP

Two giants of the struggle for equality and human rights died this weekend, Rep. John Lewis who represented Atlanta for 17 terms in Congress and the Rev. C.T. Vivian, both lifelong fighters for voting rights.

I met and interviewed both of these mass leaders on March 11, 2005, when my wife Joyce and I were sent to Selma, Alabama, to cover the Bridge Crossing Jubilee, a reenactment of the first voting rights march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, March 11, 1965, in which Lewis was nearly clubbed to death by attacking Alabama State troopers.

This was the 40th anniversary of that first march, but the 10,000 who gathered were not celebrating a right secured for all time by the heroic voting rights marchers of 1965. On the contrary, everyone in Selma that day in 2005 was acutely aware that President George W. Bush was in office because hundreds of thousands of people across the nation were disenfranchised, stripped of their most precious democratic right. The 2000 Presidential election was stolen, a “very American coup,” as a People’s Weekly World headline put it at the time.

Indeed, Bush and the Republicans were even at that moment engaged in a campaign of dirty tricks to suppress the votes of African Americans, Latinos, immigrants, women, youth, former prison inmates. To cover their dirty work, Bush and the GOP launched a “charm offensive,” sending a delegation of Republican lawmakers led by the corrupt Senator Bill Frist (R-Tenn) to trick the crowd even as Frist spearheaded the GOP drive to gut the Voting Rights Act that Jimmie Lee Jackson, Viola Liuzzo, and in Mississippi, Medgar Evers died to win.

Neither Rep. John Lewis nor Rev. C.T. Vivian, a close confidant of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was fooled by the Republican demagoguery, nor were any of those who marched with them. I will never forget Rev. Vivian’s scorching denunciation of Bush and the GOP drive to eviscerate the Voting Rights Act as the crowd in Brown’s Chapel AME roared. Vivian blasted the torrent of lies by Bush-Cheney to justify the war in Iraq as Frist sat pale, with a stricken look on his face. The crowd gave Vivian a standing ovation.

An hour later,  the huge crowd assembled, with Rep. Lewis in the vanguard. “It is good to see young people out here making some noise,” Rep. Lewis told Joyce and me as we marched toward the bridge. “A lot of people are too quiet.

If you don’t like the direction the country is going, you have a responsibility to stand up, to protest nonviolently.”

I thought it was significant that Lewis was thinking of youth as he marched, hundreds of African-American youth behind him. He himself was the youthful leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee when he was beaten by police so viciously that day forty years earlieran early exponent of the idea Black Lives Matter.

Rev. C.T. Vivian with Tim Wheeler at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver.

When we reached the east end of the bridge, Rev. Vivian was standing, looking back at the huge crowd, a smile of joy on his face. I asked him for an interview. “Don’t take voting rights for granted,” he told me. “We took it for granted that if we had the right to register and vote, our votes would be counted. We never imagined that forty years later we would have to launch a whole new struggle. But we now know that many poor people never had their votes counted in the 2000 election or in the 2004 election. Given the character of the people now in power, we can have no confidence that our votes are being counted.”

Earlier, in his speech, Vivian spoke of starting another movement “all over again” to defeat the reactionary forces scheming to nullify voting rights. Neither Rev. Vivian nor Rep. Lewis ever ceased fighting for democratic rights, voting rights first of all. They were native sons of the civil rights movement and never stopped marching to its insistent, fightback drum.

Rev. Vivian became my friend. I interviewed him several times in the years that followed and ran into him at the Democratic National Convention in  Denver in 2008. Vivian was celebrating Barack Obama’s nomination for President, seeing in it a vindication of the struggle to win voting rights for the African-American people. I have no doubt that Rep. Lewis shared that sense of triumph that the nomination and later election of the first African-American president were made possible by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In 2013, President Obama honored Rev. Vivian with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

At the end of their lives, they were fighting the fascist-like menace of the corporate Republicans hell-bent on stealing the 2020 election. In honor of Lewis and Vivian, we should double down in defense of voting rights, work to expose and defeat their vote suppression tactics. In their memory let us turn out a huge vote Nov. 3 to defeat Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell, and block the GOP theft of another election.


Tim Wheeler
Tim Wheeler

Tim Wheeler estimates he has written 10,000 news reports, exposés, op-eds, and commentaries in his half-century as a journalist for the Worker, Daily World and People’s World. Tim also served as editor of the People’s Weekly World newspaper. He lives in Sequim, Wash., in the home he shared with his beloved late wife Joyce Wheeler. His book News for the 99% is a selection of his writings over the last 50 years representing a kind of history of the nation and the world from a working-class point of view.