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'Let’s honor their vision and persistence by finishing what they started. Let’s act as they responsibly acted'

We invited two professors from the UI's College of Education to reflect on the remarkable lives of two civil rights icons we lost on the same day last week — John Lewis and the Rev. “C.T.” Vivian

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C.T. Vivian

The civil rights movement lost two legends in the span of 24 hours Friday. Also mourned: C.T. Vivian, a minister, author and close friend of Martin Luther King Jr.

As a child, my mother told me death always comes in three. Saddened by recent newscasts, I presently ponder who’s the third. Was it Elijah? Perhaps someone else tomorrow?

In one day, our nation lost two giants for social justice. Friends and mentors to humanity.

Christopher Span

Christopher M. Span is the UI’s associate dean for graduate programs and a professor of education policy, organization and leadership.

First was the Reverend Cordy Tindell “C.T.” Vivian — Baptist minister and civil rights icon; confidant of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; Macomb High School and Western Illinois graduate; youth director in Peoria; leader of the sit-in movement in Nashville, Tenn.; freedom rider; founder of Vision, a higher education program designed to prepare Black youth for college and beyond, which would later be renamed Upward Bound; truthsayer; dismantler of unjust laws; believer in the transformative power of education; and protector of human dignity and rights.

The Rev. Vivian was followed in death by his dear friend, Congressman John Lewis — born the son of Alabama sharecroppers during the Jim Crow era; teenage freedom rider; chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee; organizer of the peaceful march across the infamous Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma that turned into “Bloody Sunday” because of police and mob brutality; public servant and statesman for nearly 60 years; recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom; deemed the moral conscious of Congress; and author of a trilogy of graphic novels entitled, MARCH, that seek to teach youth about the Civil Rights Movement, and the power and necessity of organized protest for social justice and progressive change.

John Lewis young

John Lewis at age 24, at the height of the civil rights movement.

Lewis’ death is personal for me. In early spring 2020, I prepared an honorary degree packet for Congressman Lewis, near unanimously approved by the Faculty Senate. It wasn’t the first time I had written campus leadership to honor the Georgia congressman. A year earlier, I wrote Chancellor (Robert) Jones inquiring whether Congressman Lewis could receive the Chancellor’s Medallion for his dedicated generosity and service to humanity. Chancellor Jones agreed.

Lewis was to be the keynote for the College of Education’s biannual Youth Literature Festival; unfortunately, events in Congress prevented his visit. Hopes were once again raised that we could properly recognize him at this year’s commencement with an honorary doctorate, but COVID-19 unfortunately thwarted this visit too. Now, so too has death.

I admired these men dearly and thank them for being the example humanity needs. Despite the circumstances they were born and thrust into, they never stopped trying to change the world for the better. And they truly changed the world for the better. They persistently risked their livelihood and well-being for humanity, because they sincerely believed in humanity.

They should be required profiles of generosity and courage studied, shared and emulated by all. We should never forget what they stood for, who they stood for or what they fought against.

Still, remembering is not enough. Let’s honor their vision and persistence by finishing what they started. Let’s act as they responsibly acted. Let’s honor their lives the way they honored others, including ours, by continuing to change the world for the better.

Let’s not rest until the deed is done; until the great portrait they envisioned and begun painting on the canvas we call America is complete, visible and accessible for all to witness and experience.

We are the products of their magnificent imagination, vision and efforts; the culmination of lives well spent.

May they rest in peace.

Christopher M. Span is the UI’s associate dean for graduate programs and a professor of education policy, organization and leadership.