To make the world better, we must follow in the footsteps of John Lewis and C.T. Vivian
BY KYLE SOUTHERN
Like John Lewis, I first came to Nashville to pursue a college degree. I rolled into town on a Greyhound bus. That’s roughly where our similarities end, but upon news of his passing on Friday at the age of 80, I was struck by the number of ways his life touched my own. Congressman Lewis’s passing, along with that of fellow Nashville and national civil rights icon Rev. C.T. Vivian, marks a watershed moment in the ongoing struggle for justice and equality in America. It’s a cause that must be led by young people.
In January 2007, I found myself riding along on a Freedom Ride rolling seminar organized by Vanderbilt University, Tennessee State University, American Baptist College, and Fisk University.
As we rolled down I-65 to Birmingham and Mongtomery, students, faculty, and staff from the four institutions heard stories of perilous journeys prior.
We sat in the pews of Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s first ministerial appointment — as Bernard Lafayette shared about getting his start in a lifetime journey of activism. We stood on the front steps of the Capitol a few blocks away and heard John Seigenthaler tell about meeting with Governor John Patterson to petition for the Freedom Riders’ safety upon their arrival in Montgomery.
We stood outside the Freedom Rides Museum and heard John Lewis tell about the violence original Freedom Riders experienced upon their arrival at what was then the city’s bus station.
That May, then-Chancellor Gordon Gee focused on the Freedom Ride tour in his Commencement address to the Vanderbilt Class of 2007. Gee observed, “The Freedom Riders were not a warrior caste. They were just students, just young people — just perfectly, perfectly ordinary people, who raised voices that many did not want to hear.”
Today’s young advocates carry on the legacy of Congressman Lewis, Rev. Vivian, Diane Nash, and so many other courageous leaders who put their lives on the line for justice and equality. Tennessee remains a state thirsty for both.
Tennessee is the state where Rosa Parks trained in civil disobedience, Rev. James Lawson trained nonviolent activists, and Dr. King was murdered. Yet today’s young leaders must protest still the misguided fixations of state elected leaders who would rather send their tax dollars out of state than use them to provide Tennesseans health coverage through Medicaid expansion.
Tennesseans bear the moral weight of state executions carried out while their governor refuses to intervene.
I had the privilege of hearing John Lewis and C.T. Vivian share their stories and their visions for a better America.
Their passing, however, reminds me of words Michelle Alexander used in concluding her book, “The New Jim Crow”: “Hopefully the new generation will be led by those who know best the brutality of the new caste system — a group with greater vision, courage, and determination than the old guard … But once respects have been paid, they should march right past them, emboldened, as King once said, by the fierce urgency of now.”
John Lewis’ work is now done, as is that of C.T. Vivian. But the work of making a better, more just Tennessee and America remains as urgent as even. We can only realize our founding ideals by listening to young people and empowering them to lead.
(Kyle Southern is policy and advocacy director for higher education and workforce at Young Invincibles. He was a 2018 candidate for the Tennessee House of Representatives in the 59th district. – Reprinted from the Nashville Tennessean)
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