C.T. Vivian: Civil Rights Pioneer and Living Legend
Aug 25th, 2015 — When I wrote this blog post about Rev. C.T. Vivian, I was shocked and amazed when I learned that he had read it, and even more so, when he very graciously e-mailed me and expressed his sincere appreciation. Thus began a fascinating and immensely informative online conversation with this great man. I will always remember his kind and encouraging words as he expressed his hard-won ideals and his faith in the next generation. The lingering image of his constant smile and encouraging voice will remain forever.
Among his many accolades and life’s accomplishments as a pioneer in the Civil Rights Movement, Rev. C.T. Vivian had the dubious distinction of having been punched in the mouth by rabid racist Sheriff Jim Clark in Dallas County, Alabama in 1965. During the demonstrations to register voters, Rev. Vivian courageously confronted Clark and spoke up on behalf of the non-violent demonstrators’ right to demonstrate for voting rights. The Sheriff promptly punched Rev. Vivian in the mouth. But after being treated at a local hospital where he received 11 stitches in his lip, Rev. Vivian returned immediately to the demonstrations and continued with the march on behalf of voting rights.
FILM FOOTAGE: Reverend C.T. Vivian attempts to register voters at the Dallas County Courthouse. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wfMVebeB_6A&feature=youtu.be
Like millions of other Americans of my generation, the recent passing of civil rights leader and activist, Julian Bond signaled a tremendous loss and evoked tremendous sadness on one level, but it also triggered proud memories of the social movement that changed the course of history. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. My Southern roots and ties to home and family in Montgomery Alabama enhanced my appreciation of members of my family who were active participants in the movement. Activists, organizers of protests and voter education drives and sit-ins, as well as founding members of two key civil rights organizations, SNCC and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Throughout my adolescence and teen years, my parents never failed to proudly bring to my attention the images of aunts, uncles, cousins, friends and neighbors in newspapers, magazines, and television coverage as they marched and protested and demonstrated for equal rights. They were and have remained my heroes. Too many unknown. Too many unsung. And too many underappreciated during their lifetimes. The shocking announcement of Julian Bond’s death underscores this point.
A great deal of Bond’s professional life was devoted to the fight for voting rights, and he was there on the front lines, remaining committed to defending and protecting the VRA. From all reports in the media he “was a quiet and unassuming man with a great sense of humor who didn’t take himself too seriously.” But after hearing this statement repeated numerous times, I began to wonder about the man himself. This courageous and life-long active participant in the movements for civil rights, peace, and economic justice. I wondered whether this man who had given so much actually had any idea how deeply he was admired and appreciated and how much he meant to us. We can only hope that before leaving this world, he was shown in some small way that he made a difference, and that the world he left was a better place because of him.
Now, especially in today’s racial climate, we must honor and pay tribute to other pioneers and living legends of the Civil Rights Movement who are still with us. While they are still with us. Funerals, eulogies and posthumous tributes are for mourners and cannot be heard by the very ones deserving of our praise. A very old poem expresses this thought perfectly:
As our hard-won voting rights are threatened once again fifty years later, one unforgettable image comes to mind. It is the image of Rev. C.T. Vivian, an outstanding civil rights pioneer, taking a roundhouse blow to the jaw in Selma in 1965 from a racist sheriff. The nationally televised confrontation on the courthouse steps shocked the nation, but to his credit, Rev. Vivian, with blood dripping from his face, rose to his feet immediately, in courageous non-violent posture, and in stentorian tones, demanded his rights.
His involvement in the civil rights movement is impressive and wide-ranging, including the Freedom Riders, the Nashville Movement, and lunch counter sit-ins. He also coordinated the activities of local civil rights groups throughout the nation. He served as an advisor to Mr. Luther King, Jr. and organized demonstrations during campaigns in Birmingham, St. Augustine and Selma. While participating in protest demonstrations and exercising the privilege of civil disobedience, he also endured multiple arrests on such charges as “breach of peace”.
Today, Reverend Dr. C.T. Vivian at the age of 91 is blessedly still with us and still continuing his life-long work. In addition to receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2013, this pioneer and hero of the civil rights movement is also very active in his organization, the C.T. Vivian Leadership Institute in Atlanta. He continues to embrace everyone he encounters with vitality and an infectious energy, and the twinkle in his eye and his effervescent smile are ever present.
C.T. Vivian and others of the era built a tremendous civil rights legacy that should be acknowledged during their lifetimes. And today, with GOP and right-wing voter suppression efforts, as well as district gerrymandering occurring more frequently than ever before, one of the key accomplishments of their hard work and struggle, the right to vote, is seriously at risk. So, in continuing to defend and protect it, let us remember and honor C.T. Vivian and all those who struggled and sacrificed to make it a reality.