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Tribute to C.T. Vivian and John Lewis

July 21, 2020

Office of the President

July 18, 2020

The Clinton College Family pauses to pay tribute to our elders who have joined the ancestors. This weekend our nation lost two of the most legendary living figures of the Modern Civil Rights Movement, Reverend C.T. Vivian and Congressman John Lewis. Both of their careers crossed generations and centuries, continuing to serve on the behalf of the voiceless until they took their last breaths. While I did not know Rev. Vivian well, I had the honor of meeting him while I lived in Atlanta. He was a churchman and a statesman of the first magnitude. Included in his many accomplishments was serving as Dr. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) Director of Affiliates, as well as the founder of a pioneering program for students that would become Upward Bound. He built a bridge of opportunity and success for countless young people. He died at 95 years of age. His legacy will continue for many years. He was an alumnus of American Baptist College, an HBCU in Nashville, Tennessee.

Congressman John Lewis, who succumbed to pancreatic cancer late Friday night, has had a direct connection to the city of Rock Hill and to me, personally. He was universally known and respected for his courage and commitment to nonviolent direct action against injustice. One of the pivotal moments of the Movement was when a bus full of “Freedom Riders” stopped at the Greyhound Bus Terminal in Rock Hill, South Carolina in 1961. Mr. Lewis was attacked by whites who vehemently and violently opposed racial integration. He was knocked unconscious and hospitalized by the attack. One of the attackers, Elwin Wilson, had no idea that he was brutalizing an American hero and future Congressman. In 2009, Mr. Wilson apologized and asked Mr. Lewis for forgiveness. Of course, Mr. Lewis, holding no hatred in his heart, graciously forgave Mr. Wilson. At 23 years old, John Lewis was one of the “Big Six” of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, which included Dr. King, Whitney Young of the Urban League, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and James Forman of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). As a college student, he was the youngest speaker at the historic March on Washington on August 23, 1968. He was a proud graduate of two historically Black colleges (HBCUs), American Baptist College and Fisk University.

I had the honor of knowing Congressman John Lewis prior to and after his election to the United States Congress. I met him when I was a 19-year-old student at Morehouse College in Atlanta. I, along with a few other students, had Thanksgiving dinner at the then-City Councilman’s home, prepared by his wonderful wife, Lillian Lewis. I worked on his staff in his improbable campaign against the venerable Julian Bond for Congress in 1986. After his inspiring victory, I was an intern in his Atlanta office in 1987. He was my first direct link to Civil Rights royalty. He inspired my life in ways I cannot fully describe. He helped me to see the connections between social justice, faith and public service. He encouraged me when he saw me "getting in good trouble" while I was a 24-year-old pastor leading a protest against a racist sheriff in Winder, Georgia. It wasn't until I left Atlanta in the 1990s that I fully realized what a giant of a man John Lewis was. He would later become an icon to the students of the Atlanta University Center. When I moved to Rock Hill three years ago, remembering his dreadful foray here over 50 years ago, I felt like my life was coming full circle. I had hoped to honor him by inviting him to speak to our Clinton College family. At 80 years-old, Mr. Lewis was the living embodiment of the “Beacon of Light” we seek to be for all of our students.

I can honestly say that my journey to social activism and eventual rise to the college presidency was inspired in large degree by the life of John Robert Lewis. He had a humble, yet magnanimous personality and magnetic love for young people. He knew first hand what it meant to be encouraged to find your voice in your youth, especially through his student organizing days in Nashville, Tennessee. He blazed a trail, from his work as the young leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, to his leadership of the Voter Education Project, to his service as an Atlanta City Councilman, and throughout his 33 stellar years as a United States Congressman. He never forgot where I came from or who he was representing. The “boy from Troy,” Alabama was not only “the conscience of Congress,” he was an advocate of justice for all people and a true American hero.

Thank you, Congressman Lewis. Your life was an example that will never die. Take your rest with Martin, Joe Lowery, your darling Lillian, C.T. and the ancestors. We will miss you. We will honor your legacy by getting into the “good trouble” you encouraged us to do.

In honor and gratitude,

Dr. Lester A. McCorn,
13th President of Clinton College Rock Hill, South Carolina