Commentary: ‘GOOD TROUBLE’

In memory of John Lewis (1940-2020) and C.T. Vivian (1924-2020)

“To those who have said, ‘Be patient and wait,’ we must say that we cannot be patient. We do not want our freedom gradually but we want to be free now.”  – future Congressman John Lewis, 1963, March on Washington

“You are made by the struggles you choose.” – Reverend C. T. Vivian

By Dr. Tony Allen

On July 20, I shared this letter with the Delaware State University community:

Tonight Congressman John Lewis and Reverend C. T. Vivian will sit down to dinner with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for the first time in over fifty years.

There will be others at that table: Evers, Parks, Bayard, Baldwin, X, Chavez and more. DuBois, Douglass and Garvey will be looking in, as well. And all will be unified by one thing: “good trouble, necessary trouble.”

Visualizing this moment should compel all of us who believe in the cause of justice and freedom to do something more than bemoan the moment.

Lewis, the son of sharecroppers, whose body would from 1965 forever bear the marks the blows from police nightsticks delivered at Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, rose to become “the conscience of the Congress,” and when he passed from pancreatic cancer Friday, there ended the life of the last surviving speaker at the March on Washington.

At 23, he was the youngest person slated to speak, and his planned remarks were considered so inflammatory not only by members of King’s inner circle, but also by U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, that as a condition of standing at that podium, he was required by his elders to submit to a line-by-line edit of his proposed words.

It is important for all of us at Delaware State University to reflect that — at that critical moment in our nation’s history — the young Black man who stepped forward to take his place at the rostrum was the same age as many of our graduates as they walk across the state at commencement every year.

What he said that day in front of hundreds of thousands was: “The time will come when we will not confine our marching to Washington. We will march through the South. But we will march with the spirit of love and with the spirit of dignity that we have shown here today.”

The original script read: “We will march through the South, through the very heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did. We shall pursue our own scorched-earth policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground — nonviolently.”

Though toned down, The New York Times editorial page still proclaimed: “Certainly, King’s speech was the most eloquent. But the most ferocious was John Lewis’.”

Brother Lewis was, throughout his life and in his own words, “good trouble, necessary trouble.”

From left, former Delaware State College President William B. DeLauder shakes hands with U.S. Rep. John R. Lewis while then-interim vice president of academic affairs
Dr. Henry Tisdale looks on. The photo is from the 1988 commencement ceremony, for which Rep. Lewis was the keynote speaker. (Submitted photo)

He brought that fire with him to our campus in 1988, when he delivered the commencement address and received an honorary degree. He was aware that then-Delaware State College had alumni who had found “good trouble” fighting Nazis in World War II and staging a sit-in at the Hollywood Diner in 1962. He knew that we, as an unapologetic historically Black college, promoted “good trouble.”

I wish I had seen him when he was on campus in ’88, but in 2016, I moderated an interview in which Lewis interacted with Sen. Chris Coons and an aspiring Gov. John Carney. He had so thoroughly devoted his life to the cause of human equality that it radiated from his diminutive frame like a clear, full moon.

His senior colleague, Cordy Tindell Vivian, is no less deserving of our remembrance and our emulation. He preferred to remain in the background, as Dr. King’s most trusted tactician, the “field general” of the Civil Rights movement. He was the organizing genius who recognized the key difference between this movement and all that had come before.

“It was Martin Luther King who removed the Black struggle from the economic realm and placed it in a moral and spiritual context. It was on this plane that the movement first confronted the conscience of the nation,” Vivian observed.

Rev. Vivian developed the essential tactics employed by Dr. King’s marchers with a clear, uncompromising eye toward the ultimate victory. Dr. King chose nonviolence as a moral imperative; Rev. Vivian agreed wholeheartedly but also understood that nonviolence worked in part because it confronted segregationist authorities with a tactic they had never seen before and did not know how to counter. He understood that if the world saw this conflict play out, the rules of the entire game would be changed.

The moral look in America’s mirror required that Dr. King lead the way to Selma. Andrew Young, John Lewis, Hosea Williams and 600 other protesters — Black and white — all needed to be in the ranks of those facing down Alabama state troopers without raising a hand in their own defense. But without the Rev. Vivian, it might never have been on national television to outrage the conscience of a nation.

These are the three elements that drive social change: uncompromising vision, courageous passion and the organizational skills to put them together in full view of a watching world.

Plenty of struggles exist in 2020 to galvanize the next generation of leaders. Black citizens remain three times as likely to be killed by law enforcement as white Americans. We have incarcerated entire generations of Black men for victimless crimes. Since 1968, Black families’ wealth has remained at only 10% of their white neighbors. Education and health care outcomes show similar disparities.

It is our calling, as members of the Delaware State University community — faculty, staff, students and alumni — to honor their example by unceasing action toward the social change that will bring America’s promise to everyone, no matter the color of their skin, the country of their origin, the god they worship or who they choose to love.

If Black lives matter, there is work to be done by all. Brother Lewis once said: “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?” We all must honor his legacy — and that of the Rev. Vivian — by always answering “Us!” and “Now.”

Good trouble …

Dr. Tony Allen is the president of Delaware State University.