Mourning heroes

John Lewis, lion of civil rights and Congress, dies at 80 ...

John Lewis and Mayor Muriel Bowser at Black Lives Matter Plaza

John Lewis is dead.

So is C. T. Vivian.

Our heroes are mortal, and their passing hurts, particularly now when moral courage and civic action seem more important than ever.

There is some consolation in knowing that Rep. Lewis and Rev. Vivian got to live full rich lives, maintaining their engagement, raising families, and seeing some progress on the issues they pressed.

C.T. Vivian, integration leader, left, leads a prayer on the courthouse steps in Selma, Ala., February 5, 1965, after Sheriff James Clark, background with helmet, stopped him at the door with a court order. Vivian led hundreds of demonstrators armed with petitions asking longer voter registration hours. Clark arrested them when they refused to disperse. (AP Photo/Horace Cort)

C.T. Vivian confronts Sheriff Jim Clark.

More than a few of the many heroes of the Civil Rights movement were not so fortunate.

We must remember that the movement was far bigger than the famous few names that students commit to memory.

There were many heroes, and they’re not otherworldly, magical, or even saintly. They were people, like the rest of us, who had a clear moral vision and the willingness to take risks and even to suffer for it…at least for a moment.

In recognizing their humanity, we can strip the mystical element out of our stories of social change, and realize that the rest of us can step into history as well.

Rep. Lewis and Rev. Vivian stood out for their moral commitments and for their bravery. Both suffered violence in the service of their goals, and1965 photo of marchers on the Edmund-Pettus bridge during the Selma to Montgomery voting rights march refused even to try to respond in kind. Both held onto their courage and their commitments.

I don’t think moral clarity or bravery come easily to most of us, and I don’t assume they came easily to Rep. Lewis or Rev. Vivian. They were willing to work at it. Through prayer or study or meditation and civic engagement, we can too.

In the next days, people will talk about statues, monuments, and renaming things, like the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. This is all well and good. We commemorate people and moments from the past to help guide our future.

But their lives are best honored by keeping our heroes out of the glass case, memorialized by trapped in history. Rather, their examples should help us remember to look for our own moments of moral clarity and courage, and to develop the temerity to try to make the world better.


Note: I’ve written about John Lewis here before. Below are links to some of the appearances he’s made here.

Donald Trump tangles with John Lewis

John Lewis is a comic book hero

lunch counter sit-ins

A sit-in on the House floor for gun regulation

#Selma at 50 years

Bloody Sunday and the uses of history.

Activists become politicians.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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