What Rev. C.T. Vivian and Rep. John Lewis taught us

Susan K. Smith.2 1
Susan K. Smith

 

By SUSAN K. SMITH

Crazy Faith Ministries

 

It was shattering to the spirits of many people that two beloved and powerful figures of the Civil Rights Movement died on the same day. I woke up on Friday morning hearing that C.T. Vivian – a personal friend and on whom I am writing a book – had passed. I was in shocked, sad mourning all day on Friday…and then on Friday evening near midnight, I saw the news that Rep. John Lewis had passed.

Two giants, two figures of strength, courage, integrity, and commitment left us on the same day and the pain was absolutely numbing.

The tributes have been many for Lewis; Vivian has been mentioned almost as an afterthought, it has seemed, and Lewis deserves every ounce of praise he is getting.

But I kept thinking about Vivian, this slight man with a toughness few ever saw, and I think about he taught me that it is OK to be angry. Both he and Lewis put their anger into action and suffered immensely for it, but I talked with Vivian and I heard with my own ears what that anger sounded like. In this society, White people expect Black people – and any oppressed group – to just be quiet and accept the treatment they receive, but Vivian taught me directly – and Lewis, indirectly – that it is OK to be angry.

It is the height of arrogance and ignorance for White people to ask Black people, “Why are you so angry?” As I have watched White people crying and whining about wearing masks – not to save themselves as much as to protect other people – I have felt the anger bubble within me that I have carried as a Black woman in this country for a long time. I ask myself, “How can they be so selfish?”

So, “the law” has mandated that they wear masks, but they are acting like the spoiled American citizens that they are. Oppressed people have learned to follow laws even as they work against them; these gun-toting White folks are showing how weak-minded being privileged has made them.

I have also watched how guns are being used, displayed and purchased during this pandemic of racism and disease. How can they be so gung-ho about protecting their Second Amendment rights but not care about First Amendment rights as well? The federal administration is clamping down on the right of peaceful assembly – a First Amendment right – while adamantly protecting the Second Amendment. And these same people are unconcerned about the work being done to suppress the vote of African Americans – the right to vote being another right of American citizens.

It all makes me angry, but Vivian and Lewis and so many others fought to make this country honor its written, Constitutional commitment to freedom and justice – which included the right to vote. And it was their anger at the bodacious audacity of this country to deny the right to vote to African Americans, which fueled their work.

Both men were grounded in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. There is something about reading the words of Jesus; one cannot read them and be the same. Their groundedness rooted them in the soil of justice and from there, they grew. I have since come to understand and I am writing about the difference between being a “Christian” and being “religious,” the latter category one to which many White Evangelicals belong. In that type of religion, the words of Jesus are ignored, pre-empted in importance by the words of Paul.

Being rooted in Christianity, however, specifically in the words of Jesus, produces a righteous anger, “eloquent rage,” as author Brittany Cooper says in her book of the same title. “There is no way you can read Jesus and not be angry at how people are treated,” Vivian said to me in one of our sessions, and he added, anger flashing in his eyes, “…and you cannot be a Christian and be racist!”

I am going to stop trying to be like what the majority culture wants us to be – to be “content” with how we as Black people or the way any oppressed group – is treated. We don’t have to like what you are doing and have done to us for over 400 years. We see in your whining about being made to wear masks that you are sensitive about having your rights abridged and bothered. What both Vivian and Lewis taught me is that people do not have to accept their oppression, and in memory of them, I hope we continue to fight against it.

I heard on one of the moments of tribute to Lewis yesterday something he recently said, knowing he was close to death. “We must not let this thing die. We must not let this movement die like ours did.”

We hear you, Rev. Lewis. We hear you.

 

Rev. Dr. Susan K. Smith is the founder and director of Crazy Faith Ministries. Her latest book, Rest for the Justice-Seeking Soul, is now available through Barnes and Noble and Amazon. She is available for speaking. Contact her at revsuekim@sbcgloba.net.

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