By Michèle Alexandre
In the Black tradition, we are raised with two principles that are deeply relevant today: honor your elders and celebrate their lives at every turn. Give them their flowers, we are often reminded. And, when they are called back to God, their homegoing should be the source of boisterous, joyful and vivid depictions of their lives. These homegoing practices take many forms and are called different names, but the spirit remains throughout the black world. In my childhood, a veillée or veye, played an important role in rooting children to community and in helping them understand the direct connection present between departed elders and their world. In this now fast-paced and high-tech world, this interconnectedness can seem less palpable.
Still, the collective reactions and reckoning triggered by the passing of our beloved civil rights elders indicate a specific need for this type of ritual in the current moment. In the last decade, we have lost many of the pivotal drivers of the civil rights movement. We are all processing this shift and losses in real time. This weekend, the synchronous deaths of Rev. C.T. Vivian and Rep. John Lewis intensified this process.
Upon news of their passing, media outlets, communities and individuals seamlessly gathered virtually to share aspects of these two giants’ lives and their impact on us. Through these testimonies, we essentially organized a national homegoing celebration without even having to consult one another. Our stories and memories of them reinforced their deep connection to us, painting them fully, and resisting the temptation to capture mere snapshots. The beauty of this collective virtual gathering lies in the need that it exhibits. Human beings inherently yearn for connection to one another and that yearning leads to beautiful collaborations. Homegoing celebrations-wakes/veillées/veyes and other rituals-serve that function on important levels. In this time of great pain and uncertainty, where many of the ills fought by Rep. John Lewis and Rev. C.T. Vivian are striving to return, our yearning to dialogue with these elders has become visceral. This is so because we realize that this is a time for deep reflection, for maximizing our understanding of their strategies and legacies, so that we may continue their mission.
Rev. Vivian and Rep. Lewis made history, resoundingly. Without their work shaping and executing the pillars of the civil rights movement, our lives, as we know it, would not be. And, even more, they continued throughout their lives to transform the nation. When one examines their influence, the reach and the good they were able to achieve illustrate clearly their national importance. It is staggering the clarity of vision that they exhibited in implementing their assault on injustice.
What is even more awe inspiring is that neither of these two souls would ever have presented their journeys as exceptional or as unique only to them. No, in fact, they took every chance they had to teach the opposite: that we all have the capacity to be transformative, to change oppressive conditions and to alleviate suffering, whether physical, institutional or spiritual. And, in the same breath, both of them would caution that it all takes work.
Representative John Lewis and Reverend C.T. Vivian were everything you will read about. And then, there were the intangible aspects, their personal manifestation of mission and love in the everyday tasks. The daily practice of love in action, the personification of service are the aspects that gripped me from my first exposure to these two spirits. My fascination with these characteristics grew stronger with each encounter with them.
We have all seen the moral fortitude of Rep. Lewis in action. We saw, for example, his sacrifice in his last days forging ahead after his diagnosis, advocating for equality and showing up every time it mattered. We know that he joined the Civil Rights Movement as a teenager, faced torture repeatedly-including in 1965 when his skull was fractured by state officers on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge-and, that he endured much more. If you have met Rep. Lewis, you also know that he exuded pure kindness. He was practical, and he was made of love. It is not a coincidence that he is known to many as the “conscience” of Capitol Hill (Katherine Tully-McManus, John Lewis Civil Rights Hero and ‘Conscience of Congress’ dies at 80, Roll Call, July 18, 2020).
Rev. Vivian is equally a giant of the movement. He was Dr. King’s close advisor, a drum major for justice, and an instrumental architect of the nonviolent paradigm. He too faced danger as he implemented the civil rights strategies that yielded the gains we now live. He was the gentlest of souls. You will find clips of him standing steadfast in the face of physical attacks. What I will remember the most about Rev. Vivian is the feeling of peace and serenity he disseminated throughout his path. When one met him, one immediately had the experience of meeting someone transformed by love. He spoke softly and often stepped in to mediate the deepest wounds among groups. I remember vividly, when Reverend Vivian was called to officiate our wedding. He agreed generously and when faced with tensions caused by the gendered language of the holy text, he graciously agreed to omit all references to gender subservience and domination, thus soothing cross-generational hurts and ushering peace among all.
These two men’s sacrifices and contributions to the civil rights movement stand in their own right. They are part of a pantheon of leaders, men and women, who committed their entire lives to reversing the ignominious ills of hate and who loved justice deeply. Reverend James Orange, Reverend Joseph Lowery, Ms. Marie Foster, Ms. Amelia Boynton, Dr. Bernard Lafayette, to name just a few. Their work, I hope, is now accessible and distributed to all eager to learn. What is less studied about them, however, is the evolution of their growth and their efforts to transcend the limitations of their own time, so as to provide a higher calling for the human journey.
I learned more about them and was fortunate to see their processes, when in my 20s, my quest to practice civil rights took me to Selma, Alabama. There, I was privileged to join a group of young people eager to learn from civil rights elders. These elders worked tirelessly to bring meaningful change to disenfranchised communities. The then-young people flocked to them and scrutinized every lesson and manifestation they imparted. Rev. Vivian, Rep. Lewis and many other civil rights framers made regular pilgrimages to Selma. The presence of Ms. Amelia Boynton, still residing in Selma then, and the recounting of her work to bring voting rights to the state were visible illustrations to young minds of the power of clarity and vision. For years, away from cameras or limelight, these elders spent countless hours interfacing with us, tackling community problems, and teaching via example. They gave us the most precious gift there is: their time. There, without pomp and circumstance, through the old tried method of teaching, a natural continuity took shape. The lessons learned from these elders changed us. And, without knowing it, their model imprinted on all of us in ways that continue to show.
And, if I am honest, I am heartbroken that we did not have their examples for a longer period. This feeling of sadness and longing is natural. We not only loved and respected them, we valued spending time with them and hearing their wisdom. But, we also hoped that they would live forever, giving us a perpetual sense of comfort.
In the civil rights community, which is wide, varied and non-monolithic, we often debate about the proverbial generational passing of the torch. At times, it has been presented as a magical moment, a specific glorious ceremony where the next person is chosen to lead. However, history and these elders’ examples teach us that this picture is inaccurate. Though there may be some more visible than others, a deep dive into our elders’ lives finds an array and diversity of contributions across regions, philosophies, means and strategies.
The same applies to the next stage of this work. Our elders’ legacies reveal that there is no need to wait for an anointing. We are ready and there is much work to do. Our elders’ examples, their model, their lessons and the time they generously dedicated to the nation gave us all we could ever need.
The fact that Rep. John Lewis and Rev. C.T. Vivian transitioned in harmony with each other almost seems to accentuate that point. Decades ago, they stepped in when they saw a need and were called to serve. In the process, they perfected love and service in action throughout a lifetime. We have that blueprint. It is not easy. It is a deliberate and daily practice. It often hurts. We will not always get it right. For many, it is, nonetheless, the only life worth living.
Michèle Alexandre is the Dean of Stetson University Law School.