Today Civil Rights leader C.T. Vivian will be laid to rest. The minister of the movement, he passed just hours before John Lewis, albeit having lived 15 years longer. For over 60 years, the two of them fought side-by-side, shoulder-to-shoulder, in the same direction toward equality.
The example of their lives is a blueprint for us now in this great moment of change. This Civil Rights Movement was strategically and meticulously planned with an end goal and the steps to get there. The leaders and activists were committed, not just for a day or a month or a year, but for a lifetime. Rosa Parks didn’t just decide in the moment to sit down on a bus. Rosa Parks was trained in resistance. She had picked, planned, and was prepared for that moment, and a lifetime of backlash for it. The Montgomery Bus Boycott didn’t just happen because of her courageous action. They studied their opponent. They had a goal, and were dedicated and determined to reach it.
This is true for the Civil Rights Movement. It’s also true for suffrage and for social changes like reforms in the mental healthcare system driven by people such as Nellie Bly. They were purposeful and plotted step-by-step. Systemic change needs a plan. It takes unwavering commitment on many fronts by many people. Do we have the commitment for it?
None of these movements were perfect. Not by a long shot. The Civil Rights Movement often marginalized women; Rosa Parks was one of the few people in the room when that planning was happening and she was given the role of secretary because that was women’s work. Suffrage marginalized women of color to a terrible degree. In recent years, this has been written about more often but not enough. Even John Lewis’s speech at the March on Washington was changed at the last minute, not because he wanted to change it but because the other senior leaders of the March asked him to change it for fear that the anger in his words would upset President Kennedy and decrease their chances of success. Congressman Lewis wouldn’t publicly discuss these changes and his feelings about it until many years later. You can read the initial draft and the final, and hear him discuss his feelings about it, at this link.
History will often wash over the details of these movements. I’m not sure why. Maybe because in the details we lose a bit of the romance, serendipity, and drama of it all. Or maybe it’s because we don’t have the patience to really study and understand them. Their lessons take resolve to learn, embody, and put into practice.
Lasting change is difficult, painfully and sadly slow at a times, and expensive in terms of time, energy, and real dollars. We can best honor and continue the bravery and thoughtful actions of our elders now by wrestling with and answering the difficult questions before us:
Who and what needs to change? How and at what cost? And who pays? Do we have the lifetime commitment for it? Do we have the resolve and decisiveness that C.T. Vivian, John Lewis, and so many others had? Are we willing to come together and collaborate rather than divide our energies and efforts? Will we embrace one another and lift up each other in this work?
Because without that, nothing and no one changes. Systemic change takes systemic solutions, and it needs many hands, hearts, and minds. Change doesn’t happen by accident; it’s made by design. We must now be those designers as the torch passes to us. What will we do with it?