On July 17 2020, the United States lost two legendary freedom fighters, the Rev. CT Vivian and US Congressman John Lewis. The two men were brilliant, disciplined and courageous leaders in the struggle to expand democracy in the United States. To describe them as Civil Rights activists is accurate but somehow incomplete.
Having had the honour of learning from them, I know they both understood themselves to be engaged in a spiritual struggle to “redeem the soul of America” as Vivian’s organisation, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, once described its focus. They were not simply working to ensure that laws were made and enforced, they were working to change the character of our relationships to one another.
Their orientation to life and to the spiritual struggle they engaged was one that sought to invite their opponents into a greater experience of their own humanity. Yes, they were fighting for the freedom of our (black) people, but they also understood that America’s brutal system of racial apartheid was destroying the humanity of white people.
Racial segregation in the United States, Australia, South Africa and other systems of racial subjugation around the world, had a corrosive effect on the enterprise of democracy that was at its infancy in the context of human history. The US Civil Rights Movement is not often placed in the context of the post World War order, but European fascists had just been defeated. The early nonviolent efforts to challenge segregation began with the first Freedom Ride in 1947. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was proclaimed by the General Assembly in 1948, the year Apartheid in South African began. The Montgomery Bus Boycott, which propelled Martin Luther King Jr, to prominence was in 1955. Colonial systems were collapsing around the world in response to freedom movements, some violent some nonviolent.
This period following the destructive global devastation of colonialism, and two World Wars, saw champions of human rights, human dignity and human flourishing emerge with an ambition to reorder our world. For many, it had never been clearer in the words of Martin Luther King Jr. that we would learn to “learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”
We are living in a moment of similar consequence. The humanitarian and ecological crises we face will require greater systems of interdependence than were built in the post world war era. The global reckoning around race brought by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis was not just about systemic racism in the US or Australian cities where the protests erupted, it is also about the crisis of how we globally are oriented towards our own humanity and the systems we’ve built to sustain a destructive disorientation.
The ecological crisis and the humanitarian crisis are linked. We have been living in denial of our interdependence. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought that into focus. The flourishing of our species is not a thing which can be achieved by individuals or an individual nation any more than world peace can be achieved unilaterally. We have to remake our world, and we have to start by reorienting ourselves towards each other and the planet that sustains us.
That John Lewis and CT Vivian would depart us now, sends a reminder of the kind of work we must devote ourselves to in the years ahead. What they and many in their generation accomplish in their lives is a sign of hope for what we might yet build in this tumultuous time.