The news that Rev. C.T. Vivian has died is still being processed by many of us associated with the Civil Rights Movement. C.T. was passionate about the advancement of African Americans and the poor. He was a fearless advocate for freedom, justice, and equality. Rev. Vivian was a distinguished-looking man, always well dressed, articulate like a college professor, and there was no doubt about his love for his wife and his family.
There are only a few individuals whose names are synonymous with integrity. Rev. C.T. Vivian is one of those individuals. He was a Civil Rights Movement strategist and one of my father’s closest confidants. Rev. Vivian’s contributions have mostly been overshadowed by how others have been recorded. However, no one can ever forget the moment when he confronted Selma, Alabama Sheriff, Jim Clark, while leading African American citizens to register to vote. Sheriff Clark’s response was captured on television and even memorialized by Soul music singer Sam Cook in his song, “Change is Gonna Come.” Sheriff Clark punched Rev. Vivian in the mouth, knocking him to his knees. As opposed to getting back up swinging like most people would have done, C.T. reflected the non-violent direct action dignity and discipline, promoted by my father, when he rose and continued confronting the Sheriff advocating that he move out of the way so that these citizens could exercise their right to vote. Rev. Vivian then asks, almost in an afterthought reflection on the encounter, “What kind of people are you?”
This encounter symbolizes the Civil Rights Movement at its best and the typical behavior of defiant segregationist who physically stood in the way of progress. It is an important lesson for human rights and social justice defenders today. The courage, the discipline, the righteous indignation about being brutalized simply for seeking to exercise constitutional rights is something that ought to inspire all of us who seek to bring about progressive social change. It also should be a message to the contemporary Sheriff Jim Clark, who is standing in the way of progress or worse, seeking to turn back the hands of time. That message is clear, it was an important part of the Movement anthem, “We are not afraid today.”
The other lesson about Rev. Vivian, is that he did not stop there. Rev. Vivian went on to help put in motions programs that would emerge as “head start” and “upward bound” programs. He would be a key campaign organizer in the 1984 and 1988 Jackson for President campaigns. Finally, Rev. Vivian founded the Anti-Klan Network that eventually morphed into the Center for Democratic Renewal (CDR) which focused on documenting hate crimes. My wife, Arndrea, worked for him at CDR for a decade and was the coordinator of the first national hate crimes summit sponsored by CDR. Rev. Perhaps most importantly, Rev. Vivian always had time to talk to young people, to share his experiences in CORE, in Nashville, with the Freedom Riders, and he believed it was important to pass the baton of responsibility.
Today, unfortunately, some people make up history or tell it in a way to benefit themselves. Rev. C.T. Vivian did not need to make up any history, he was history, and his contributions to the U.S. Civil Rights Movement were historic and immeasurable. Rest in peace, my brother!