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Honoring Reverend Vivian and Representative Lewis

July 19, 2020

We celebrate and remember what Reverend C.T. Vivian and U.S. Rep. John Lewis did for Nashville and for Nashville Public Library.

Rev. C.T. Vivian (far left) and Rep. John Lewis (third from right) join other Nashville notables to sing "We Shall Overcome" at NPL's Civil Rights Room opening celebration.

From Young Men to Icons

The world knew both men as giants. But, before they were icons, they were young men beginning a journey in Nashville.

Both students at the then American Baptist Theological Seminary, Vivian and Lewis played pivotal roles in desegregating our city. Their work of love and justice first changed this community. Then, as they took that work deeper into the American South, it changed a nation.

April 19, 1960. Mayor Ben West met with Reverend C.T. Vivian and Diane Nash after demonstrators arrived at the courthouse plaza. During the confrontation Nash asked the Mayor, “Do you feel it is wrong to discriminate against a person solely on the basis of their race or color?” to which Mayor West replied, “Yes.” This was the first major step in desegregating public accommodations in Nashville. Photo by Vic Cooley, and courtesy of Nashville Banner Archives.

In the decades following the Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Vivian and Lewis returned to Nashville again and again, pouring their stories, memories, and wisdom into the library’s Civil Rights Room and Collection.

March 23, 1963. John R. Lewis and Archie E. Allen lead anti-segregation demonstrators during the Freedom March, 18th Avenue North and Jefferson Street, Nashville, Tennessee.

A Preacher With A Big Laugh

At Nashville Public Library, we remember Reverend Vivian for a booming laugh and an unfailing practice of greeting everyone as “brother” and “sis.”

Reverend Vivian helped guide the curation of our Civil Rights Collection, identifying people from the local movement whose stories would otherwise have gone uncaptured, untold, lost.

February 15, 2004. Rev. C.T. Vivian during "Lessons in Nonviolence" session, part of NPL's Civil Rights Room opening celebration. Photo by Gary Layda.

And – even in the years before it became the mainstream issue it is today – the Reverend admonished us to keep voting suppression and voters’ rights at the forefront of our community conversations. In his loving way, Reverend Vivian held us accountable to the Movement’s legacy.

“Read, my child. Read.”

Of all the words and stories and counsel we remember from John Lewis, this one seems to be most fitting for a library tribute today.

In 2016, Rep. Lewis returned to Nashville to accept the Nashville Public Library Literary Award. By then, he had written two books, won the National Book Award, and co-authored a graphic novel trilogy.

February 15, 2004. Rep. John Lewis during "Lessons in Nonviolence" session, part of NPL's Civil Rights Room opening celebration. Photo by Gary Layda.

The day Rep. Lewis gave his Literary Award public lecture to nearly ten thousand people at the MLK Magnet at Pearl High School, he was a celebrated writer. He was also the same person who, at sixteen years old in rural Alabama, couldn’t get a library card because he was Black.

“But I had a wonderful teacher in elementary school,” Lewis told the crowd. “And she told me, ‘read, my child. Read!’ And I tried to read everything.”

Our hearts go out to the family and friends who miss Reverend Vivian and Rep. Lewis.

We miss them, too.

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