A few years ago, a survey of young people learned that many of them were more interested in being famous than being of service. When asked if they’d rather be the President of the United States, a U.S. Senator, or “famous,” youth overwhelmingly chose “famous.”
The cult of celebrity is so strong in America that we actually have people who are famous for being famous. They are not artists, writers, inventors, scientists, philanthropists, doctors, entrepreneurs, or businesspeople. Their “contribution” to society is that they exist on an Instagram or Twitter page. They have more “likes” or “follows” than everyone else. But what they do is of no real significance.
In 1968, singer Dion recorded a song written by Dick Holler titled, “Abraham, Martin, & John.” The song was a tribute to four leaders who were assassinated — Abraham Lincoln, John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Smokey Robinson & The Miracles recorded a version of the song in 1969. I thought of the song upon hearing of the deaths of Rev. CT Vivian and Congressman John Lewis who both passed away within 24 hours of each other last Friday. Also, I recalled that Rev. Joseph Lowery died this year in March. These three giants represent the best of what America (not only Black America) has to offer. All three lived lives of significance. They did not concern themselves with success. Their life work is significant. It has helped change the world and made it a better place for everyone. Black people are rightly proud of each of them.
Rev. Lowery was 98 years old when he died. He, along with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). He was the organization’s vice president, chairman of the board, and president. Today, many will remember him for giving the benediction at President Obama’s first inauguration. With his many accolades, one might expect Dr. Lowery to be prideful, but he was not. After arriving home in Atlanta from receiving an international honor he realized that he had lost his parking ticket. He approached the parking attendant’s kiosk begging for some grace to be allowed to pay what he thought he owed, but before he could get his request out, the parking attendant said, “Oh, go ahead, man, you don’t have to pay.” Rev. Lowery asked of the attendant, “You know me?” The attendant responded, “Sure, you work third shift don’t you!” The parking attendant did not recognize him as someone famous. He looked at him like any other brother who worked at the airport.
Rev. CT Vivian died a couple of weeks shy of his 96th birthday. I remember him vividly from the civil rights documentary series, “Eyes on the Prize.” Rev. Vivian is seen being assaulted on the steps of the Alabama Courthouse as he attempted to escort a group of African Americans inside to register to vote. He declared, “There is nothing we haven’t done for this nation. But we kept knowing the scriptures. We kept living by faith, We kept understanding that it’s something deeper than politics that makes life worth living.” For his bold stance, Rev. Vivian was punched in the face by Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark. Clark punched him so hard that he broke his own hand. Rev. Vivian was a Freedom Rider who founded the Nashville Christian Leadership Conference (an affiliate of SCLC). He worked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who declared the CT Vivian was the best preacher he’d ever heard. Rev. Vivian didn’t strive for success; he worked toward significance.
Congressman John Robert Lewis died on Friday night at the age of 80. He began a career in civil rights in his early 20s and was the youngest speaker at the historic 1963 March on Washington. He was severely beaten as he led a march for Black voting rights. He was also beaten in a bus station where he participated as a Freedom Rider. That beating left him unconscious. But Lewis never gave up on democracy. He never gave up on non-violence. And, he never gave up on fighting for justice.
Lewis served as a US Congressman from Atlanta for over 30 years. Unlike many civil rights leaders, Congressman Lewis was not known for his eloquence. Instead, he was known for his passion and moral commitment. His kindness was immeasurable. I ran into Congressman Lewis in the Atlanta airport in 2016. I must confess I was so giddy seeing him that I could hardly form a sentence. I just wanted to tell him how important his work has been to my thinking and understanding of democracy and justice. He looked at me and said, “Well, don’t you want to take a picture?” Of course, I did but I did not want to presume. He insisted that his assistant take the picture and wished me well. He wasn’t trying to be successful. He was continuing to be significant.
If I were to sing Dick Holler’s song, I’d update it to say, “Has anybody here seen my old friends CT, Joseph or John? Can you tell me where they’ve gone? Didn’t you love the things they stood for? Didn’t they try to find some good for you and me? And we’ll be free. Someday soon it’s gonna be one day. I thought I saw them walking up over the hill with Malcolm, Martin, and Medgar!”
I am glad that all three men—Rev. Joseph Lowery, Rev. CT Vivian, and Congressman John Lewis had a chance to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. They didn’t receive the medal for their success. They received it because they were significant.