Constant moral revolt against injustice is a legacy of the Southern stream of the Black freedom struggle. Another legacy, however, is the deployment of that struggle to falsely secure a narrative of progress. Last week, America paid homage to Rev. C.T. Vivian and Congressman John Lewis, two of Georgia’s most distinguished citizens. Vivian and Lewis stood tall in their generation as exemplars of a faith-filled tradition of mass meeting, direct action, and forceful nonviolent protest.
This tradition, when voiced in public, carries the twang and tongue of Black Southern speech, the imagery of the Hebrew prophets, the guttural melodies of Black church worship, the civic demands of “freedom now!”While often associated with men, it is also a tradition upheld powerfully, perhaps most powerfully, by women leaders of the civil rights movement like Ella Baker, Septima Clark, Diane Nash, and Prathia Hall.
Yet, for many today, the Black freedom struggle has become a myth. Our ancestors are memorialized in their death while crucified in their life. For many, the struggle has become a symbol of progress: a symbol of the progress of America, particularly white America, to finally “get it.” It is a powerful myth. It has made us believe that America has finally stopped hating Black people long enough to afford us the opportunity for that great promise of the democratic creed: dignity, power, freedom. It is what James Baldwin, in the words of Eddie Glaude Jr., calls "the lie." It keeps us trapped. Blind.
Jeanne Theoharis captures the heart of this myth. As she reflects on how we remember, she writes, “a movement that had challenged the very fabric of US politics and society was turned into one that demonstrated how great and expansive the country was." It became "a story of individual bravery, natural evolution, and the long march to a more perfect union.” The re-narration of the struggle suggested that racial injustice, America’s original sin and deepest silence, derived from individual sin rather than from national structure. Thus the progressive and expansive vision of the Black freedom struggle became passive and privatized. The dream, diluted and distorted. The dreamers, a myth. Stripped. Silenced.
The serene yet confrontational faith of Vivian and Lewis produced more than civic proverbs about the necessity of good trouble and getting in the way of injustice. To reduce the legacies of Viivan and Lewis to pithy sayings about social change, while perhaps well-intentioned, is to distort the rich complexities of their lives — and the wider currents of the Black freedom struggle. Rather, their faith testifies to the importance of insistently wedding protest to the public policymaking process; joining militant nonviolence for civil rights to a larger vision of social and economic justice; weaving voting rights to a vision of beloved community that includes, yet exceeds the scope of legislative mandates and court judgements.
As we rightly grieve their passing, we do well to remember that their publicly enacted Christian faith held that resurrection is ever the companion of loss. In the broadest sense, their loss is not merely heaven’s gain, but instead seeds planted within democracy’s soil — seeds whose roots helped birth institutions like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Congressional Black Caucus, and indeed, the Black Lives Matter movement.
The tradition that we come from in the Black freedom struggle has a long history of challenging America while also living in America, loving a place that has not loved us back. We have endured slavery’s bitter rod. We have endured lynch mobs, bent on making a violent spectacle of our Blackness. We have fought in the wars and endured segregated barracks and bathrooms, schools and communities. We have endured state-sanctioned terrorism and the criminlization of our young. We have endured theological malpractice and political oppression in order to keep the myth of white Christian America alive and active. We have endured being locked out of spaces that people promised tat we could walk in after we put on our boots and strapped them real tight. We endured so much.
Yet, we too are America and this is our country. “I love America more than any other country in the world,” James Baldwin writes,”and exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” We want this country to be what it can become. We refuse to settle for simple charity and humanitarian work that does nothing to change the given system of injustice, political disenfranchisement, and economic disinheritance. This refusal, too, is the tradition of Rev. Vivian and Congressman Lewis.
As people shout aloud “look how much progress this country has made, be grateful,” we understand that as Angela Davis writes, “freedom is a constant struggle.” How we tell the story, the story of progress, tells the story of what and whom we value.
The same horrors that they experienced, we are, though in slightly different forms. The same tragedies that they endured, we have. The same words they spoke, we say. The same complicity they encountered, we are. The same fight they fought, we’re fighting. The same vision they saw, we see. As they are gone, we live. In the place of anti-Blackness, we are working for dignity. In the place of oppression, we are working for power. In the place of forgetfulness, we are remembering those who are forgotten. In the place of segregation, we are standing in solidarity with all who would join the struggle.
Yes, myths are powerful, but so are memories. Because of them, we are. In this moment of reconstruction, we believe with Baldwin, that “though we do not wholly believe it yet, the interior life is a real life, and the intangible dreams of people have a tangible effect on the world.” Memory is always political. How we remember the past, how we dream in the present, determines the world we see in the future. Don’t believe the lie — the Black freedom struggle never ended.
Our greatest observance of our civil rights luminaries’ impact is not in simply posting on social media, but in assuming our respective posts as individuals and institutions capable of dragging our democracy’s potential — of equal justice under the law; of life, liberty, and the pursuit of what was once called the public happiness, rather than a privatized version — further into our present moment. Let writers write; artists compose; activists protest; preachers sermonize; politicians enact policy; teachers instruct. Whatever we undertake for the common good, whatever the means, it is in the doing, and not solely in the display of that doing, that we honor the legacy of civic pillars like Vivian and Lewis. What we do from here is our eulogy.