August 4, 2020

Statement from Racialized Faculty Caucus in Memory of Civil Rights Icons Emma Sanders, C.T. Vivian, and John Lewis

A Statement from the Racialized Faculty Caucus at SUNY Empire State College

In addition to the COVID-19 public health crisis and national protests in response to racially motivated police violence, summer 2020 will also be remembered as a difficult time when the nation mourned the loss of three Civil Rights icons, Educator Emma Sanders, Rev. C.T. Vivian and U.S. Representative John Lewis. 

These stalwarts of the early Civil Rights era often risked their lives in the struggle for equality and justice to make the United States of America a better place for all humanity.  As the Racialized Faculty Caucus at SUNY Empire State College prepares to engage the community in a series of webinars on racial and social justice, we remember these Civil Rights icons and their respective legacies as exemplars of righteous truth-seeking and truth-telling in the face of many wrongs.

On June 24, 2020, we learned that Mrs. Emma Sanders, an educator, great-granddaughter of enslaved people, and one of the founders of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), died peacefully at her home in Brandon, Mississippi at the age of 91.  During the 1964 Democratic National Convention, Sanders and other MFDP leaders challenged segregation in the Democratic Party by questioning the legitimacy of Mississippi's all-white delegation.  This courageous MFDP challenge to Mississippi's racially exclusive delegation was televised and took place in late August 1964 only a few weeks after the bodies of the slain Civil Rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were found in Neshoba County, Mississippi on August 4, 1964.  After the 1964 Democratic National Convention, Mrs. Sanders returned to Mississippi where she continued to build the MFDP, led voter registration campaigns, and was a full delegate from Mississippi at the 1972 Democratic National Convention and at least five conventions after that.  With courage, tenacity, and persistence, Mrs. Sanders (link is external) and her generation of unsung Civil Rights Movement strategists brought modern U.S.A. into existence.  

A few weeks later, on July 17, 2020, we learned that another Civil Rights icon, Rev. Cordy Tindell (C.T.) Vivian, a Baptist minister, a lifelong proponent of non-violent direct action, an early civil rights organizer and the national director of at least 85 local affiliate chapters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference from 1963 to 1966, passed away at his home in Atlanta, Georgia at the age of 95.  Although Rev. Vivian led numerous protests against segregation and for voting rights throughout his long career as a racial justice and civil rights activist, he is perhaps best known for leading voter registration demonstrations in Selma, Alabama that were often met with violence from local law enforcement.  In February 1965, Rev. Vivian, in his official capacity as the SCLC Director, led a group of African American citizens who intended to register to vote at the Dallas County courthouse in Selma, Alabama.  Local law enforcement officers blocked the group's access to the courthouse and beat Rev. Vivian.  Rather than retreating, Rev. Vivian stood his ground, responded non-violently and stated, "You can turn your back on me, but you cannot turn your back upon the idea of justice. You can turn your back now and you can keep the club in your hand, but you cannot beat down justice . . . And we will register to vote, because as citizens of these United States we have the right to do it."  Rev. Vivian was arrested, and his courageous response was recorded on film and televised (link is external).  This February 1965 confrontation at the Dallas County courthouse set the stage for Bloody Sunday, a violent police response to a peaceful protest for voting rights on March 7, 1965, that took place on a bridge named for a grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan.  In his statement issued on July 17, 2020, the 44th President of the United States Barack Obama stated, "Today, we’ve lost a founder of modern America, a pioneer who shrunk the gap between reality and our constitutional ideals of equality and freedom."

A few hours later, on July 18, 2020, we learned that beloved Congressman John Lewis, a national champion of "good trouble" and "necessary trouble," passed away at his home in Atlanta, Georgia.  He was 80.  The youngest speaker at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963, John Lewis dedicated his life to promoting equality, inclusion, racial justice and social justice.  In his capacity as the Chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), John Lewis was one of the organizers of the March 1965 protests in Selma, Alabama for voting rights and to raise awareness of the police killing of Jimmie Lee Jackson.  The violent response of local law enforcement officers to the peaceful protesters walking across the bridge named for a KKK grand dragon was televised for the world to see.  John Lewis was beaten badly that awful day but he summoned the courage to participate in subsequent protest marches across the bridge that same month in March 1965.  Years later, Congressman Lewis (link is external) became “the conscience of the Congress” representing the 5th Congressional District that lies at the heart of Metro Atlanta since 1986.  Former President Barack Obama praised Congressman and Civil Rights icon John Lewis on July 18, 2020 stating: "He loved this country so much that he risked his life and his blood so that it might live up to its promise. And through the decades, he not only gave all of himself to the cause of freedom and justice, but inspired generations that followed to try to live up to his example."

As members of the Racialized Faculty Caucus, we endeavor to live up to the extraordinary examples that Emma Sanders, C.T. Vivian and John Lewis set for us.  By engaging in constant critique of the systems of structural racism, segregation and caste oppression that these Civil Rights icons worked hard to destroy throughout their lives, we are adding our energies to the mission of dismantling patterns of inequality, exclusion and oppression that undermine the equality interests of people in racialized communities.  We look forward to collegial participation in continuous discussion about the meaning of equality and racial justice as inspired by the work and sacrifices of these Civil Rights icons to whom we are indebted: educator and voting rights activist Emma Sanders, Baptist minister Rev. C.T. Vivian, and U.S. Representative John Lewis.


The Racialized Faculty Caucus at SUNY Empire State College



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