Oh freedom, oh freedom, oh freedom over me. And before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free.
The year 2020 has been one for the books. We are in the midst of a pandemic, that disproportionately affects Black people. There have been police killings of Black men and women in rapid succession that have produced demonstrations around the world. And now three of our Civil Rights Giants have taken their places with the Ancestors.
Reverend Joseph Lowery transitioned on March 27th at the age of ninety-eight. On July 17th, Reverend C.T. Vivian and Congressman John Lewis passed within 12-hours of each other, shocking the nation. The three of them collectively lived a total of 274 purposeful years.
Despite coming of age during the most segregated era in US history, these three amazing men did not allow that from stopping them from obtaining secondary educations. And Instead of choosing occupations for their own personal gain, they committed their lives fighting for the liberation of Black people.
Each had answered the call of God to preach the gospel and to break the shackles of oppression and hatred. They stayed the course, finished their race, and have now passed the torch to all of us, who still yet live.
I think about the suffering the three of them endured──How they fought a system that refused to see the humanity of an entire race of people, simply because of the color of their skin.
I think of all the people they said goodbye to prematurely. People, who were martyred in the struggle; Jimmy Lee Jackson, Medgar Evers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins, Viola Liuzzo, James Reeb, Emmitt Till, Martin Luther King Jr, and scores of other men and women, whose only crime was being Black and unwilling to live a life as a second class citizen.
The song Oh Freedom keeps reverberating in my head. “Before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free.” The men and women, in the movement, lived this song out every time they participated in a sit-in to integrate lunch counters, or rode a bus in the Freedom Rides, or attempted to register to vote, or marched to an integrated school and other public facilities.
Because of Lowery, Vivian, and Lewis’ we have the blueprint on how to continue the work for equity and justice. We have been passed the torch to continue challenging the oppression and state-sponsored violence against Black and brown people in America.
President Obama, in his eulogy for Rep Lewis, said that we owe these men a great debt. That it is incumbent on all of us to summon the courage of John Lewis and challenge wrong. It is required that each generation pick up the unfinished work and carry it further until the ideal of this country becoming a more perfect union is realized. The fate of democracy depends on how we nurture and tend to it.
He went on to say that we all have a God-given right to dignity and respect. President Obama reminds us that progress is fragile, and we must remain vigilant and remember our country’s history because the country we leave our children and grandchildren will depend on the effort we make in working toward that more perfect union.
In 1965 Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law. But in 2013 the Robert’s Supreme Court struck down the formula that was the heart of the Voting Rights Act, which required states with a history of discrimination against minority voters to get pre-clearance by the federal government before they could make any voting law changes.
Since the weakening of the Voters Rights Act, a number of states have enacted restrictive ID laws that target students and minorities.
Between 2013-2018 1,688 polling places have been closed in states that would have had to get federal approval prior to the ruling. John Lewis fought tirelessly to get a new voting rights law through Congress.
President Obama and others have urged the Congress, that if they truly want to honor Rep Lewis beyond platitudes, to pass a 2020 John Lewis Voting Right Law. He also admonished the Black community that too many of us choose not to exercise the franchise, which is the central premise of voter suppression. The president implores us to overcome complacency, our fears, and prejudices, and turn toward each other. He asks us to remember that in our beloved community, we do not walk alone.
Congressman Lewis also had a final message for us, that was published in the New York Times on the day of his funeral. Rep Lewis exhorted us to study and learn the lessons of history. He wrote, “Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life, I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.
When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression, and war. So, I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers, and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power Of everlasting love be your guide.”