A Requiem to a Beautiful Life: Remembering Rev. C.T. Vivian (July 30, 1924 – July 17, 2020)
By Dr. Randy Short
In 1995, I was blessed to make acquaintance via phone with the late C.T. Vivian when I was working for PBS Newhour with Jim Lehrer. It was a cold call to a stranger that I had admired for years, and I did not let the fact that I did not know him prevent me from making a cold call. Rev. Vivian from that time until he passed last week was alway a gracious and kind soul that extended himself to help and advise me for twenty-five years. I felt a deep concern for him on Thursday, July 16, 2020, because it was an important day that was shared by several important people in my life. The 16th of July was the 76 anniversary of my adopted grandmother violently resisting to bigot cops on a bus in Saluda, Virginia that resulted in a Supreme Court case decision that inspired Rosa Parks, Douglass Wilder, James Farmer, and the Civil Rights Movement as a whole. The entire effort to improve education by means of busing and the “freedom rides” of the 1940s, anti-segregated public transit struggles in Baton Rouge, Montgomery and elsewhere, and the “freedom rides of the 1960s” all rested on Irene Amos Morgan refusing to give up her seat. My last major conversation with Rev. Vivian regarded how his life-long friend John Lewis had been a co-sponsor of the Gay Equality Act HR 5 which deliberately conflates the agenda of the radical white homosexual agenda with the centuries-old struggle of Black Americans to get redress for Slavery, Peonage, Segregation, Jim Crow, American Apartheid, Token Desegregation, and whatever the name one can use to define the ever-changing goal-post of keeping we Black folks down. Despite the advance stages of Rev. Vivian’s illness, he was furious with John Lewis and wanted me to send him information so he could light a fire under Joh Lewis, but, I relented. I loved Rev. Vivian and it hurt me to witness such a great life well-lived in the inevitable decline that we all must succumb to eventually. I never followed up, but Rev. Vivian loved hard and fought hard against every injustice that he could. It was an honor to call him and talk for hours about politics, racism, current events, Africa, the Black Diaspora, and, he especially loved my calling him and making sarcastic and satirical commentary about sellout coons and doing impressions of Donald Trump, Barak Obama, Nixon, Reagan, Jimmy Carter, John Lewis, and Martin Luther King. Even as his heath declined he remembered my name and who I was. I had the same relationship with the late John Hope Franklin who like Rev. Vivian trashed me for not calling more often. It hurt me so much because I knew I would lose another elder friend. He transitioned the next day. I received a text message from Washington ABC News Anchor Sam Ford stating, “I am so sorry your buddy died”. Initially, I thought Ford was referring to the Hon. Congressman the Rev. Dr. Walter E. Fauntroy who was my former pastor at New Bethel Baptist Church had expired, because he had recently suffered a stroke; however, it was my dear friend Rev. Vivian.
The reason that I called Rev.Vivian in 1995 was because I was outraged at the desecration of Black Churches all over the South. Racist terrorists torched sacred spaces and houses of worship, and a society that tolerates the burning of churches will also turn a blind-eye to the burning of the people who attend these churches. I had no idea that the Center for Democratic Renewal existed, but Rev. Vivian had been tracking the trend in Black church burnings too. He was impressed that I had a listing of even some churches he was not aware that had been destroyed. The minute he found out how serious and angry I was about it an inseparable bond was forged. Rev. Vivian and I helped to create a coalition of organization that successfully fought the racial terrorists that were burning Black churches. I helped get the NAACP and other organizations to utilize the information that the Center for Democratic Renewal had to create a policy program to combat these atrocities.
We only had three disagreements in 25 years: (1) he felt I had clairvoyant powers and was mad that I did not call to comfort him regarding the death of his wife Octavia in 2012, and I had to scold him because he forgot his voicemail had been full, (2) we clashed over Barak Obama’s efforts to help Black people—this one we never worked out, and (3) he hated Trump and I did not. He gave me so many inside views on Martin Luther King. He even joked about Martin Luther King being worked so hard for the movement that the myth of his being a evangelical sex machine was hype, because he was often exhausted and surrounded by people—thus, it is hard to be a sex addict in a room full of people signing books and shaking hands. Rev. Vivian told me about how Dr. King had wanted to start a movement for reparations in the 1950s, but faced stiff resistance from most of the SCLC board members, and he shared with me how Dr. King was a master impressionist. Vivian insisted many of the FBI tapes of King that have been sealed mores because of King’s making light of important personalities of his day than because of his alleged satyr-like conduct. I am going to wait awhile before sharing with others things he told me about important people, but he was not always so laudatory of many people assumed to be working on behalf of Black people.
Vivian was always trying to help, save, encourage, mold, and groom others. His greatest pride was in his wife and children and his personal library of 5,000+ books all by Black authors. I loved him for being a great Christian, a great preacher, a great husband, a great father, a great leader, a great servant, a great mentor, a great educator, a great philanthropist, a great friend, and someone so down-to-earth and so passionate about the uplifting of Black people. Unlike all the other Race Pimps that came out of the SCLC Rev. Vivian was not a liar, nor a thief, nor a whoremonger, nor did he in 25 years ever speak of being beaten in Selma in 1965—except the one time I asked him about it. He never even told people about police trying to beat to death in the Selma Police Station. Contrast that with John Lewis who incessantly talked about the police battery of him to the extent that one might feel that he had a fetish for receiving violent attention. Rev. C.T. Vivian was saintly Black man who never was one of the boomer narcissistic media-whores like Jesse Jackson, Joseph Lowery, John Lewis, and so forth. The following paragraphs are a succinct summary but by no means an exhaustive summary of his life.
On July 17, 2020, a great veteran of the Civil Rights Movement the Right Rev. Cordy Tindell “C.T.” Vivian joined the heavenly host at the ripe age of 95 just two weeks shy of his 96th birthday. For nearly eighty years, Rev. Vivian distinguished himself as a distinguished minister, author, humanitarian, entrepreneur, political strategist, advocate for the poor, and a proud and loving husband to his wife Octavia who preceded him in death and six surviving children and many grand and great grand children. Vivian lived in the Cascades section of his beloved Atlanta, Georgia, and there he was a pillar of the community and founded and served as chairman of the Capitol City Bank that for a time was the most important Black fiducial institution in the state of Georgia. Rev. Vivian loved young people, and he founded the C. T. Vivian Leadership Institute, Inc. In addition to the many great works, Rev. Vivian fought valiantly to preserve the Morris Brown University in Atlanta, and for a period successfully prevented that venerable institution from closing its doors. Vivian was universally known for his impeccable honesty, humility, kindness, and decency was trusted by the entire spectrum of the Civil Rights Movement. Vivian’s high character won him a coveted position as both close friend and lieutenant to Martin Luther King, Jr., and served as his first assistant and was a charter member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957. Speaking of Rev. Vivian Martin Luther King, Jr. described him as “the greatest preacher to ever live”.Rev. Vivian was a stalwart fighter for justice and freedom for over 75 years and he was a contemporary of many great men and women of the Civil Rights Pantheon inclusive of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rev. A.D. King, T.R.M. Howard, Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Floyd McKissack, Medgar Evers, Fred Shuttlesworth, Matt T. Walker, Ella Baker, Daisy Bates, Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, Septima Clark, Whitney Young, Julian Bond, Dr. James Farmer, James Forman, Stokely Carmichael (aka Kwame Ture), and legions of people of goodwill that believed that America could be made a Democracy that was free and fair to all people. Born in Boonville, Missouri, in 1924, his family migrated to Macomb Illinois, and, there, he attended Lincoln Grade School, Edison Junior High School, and graduated from Macomb Senior High School in 1942. Afterwards Vivian matriculated into Western Illinois University in Macomb, where he edited the sports section of the school newspaper. Vivian’s freshman year in college coincided with James Farmer, George Houser, James R. Robinson, Bernice Fisher, Homer Jack, and Joe Guinn creating the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) in Chicago. Vivian joined CORE in the middle 1940s. The Carver Community Center in Peoria, Illinois, hired Vivian to be the Director of Recreation. In Peoria, Vivian join the wave of Post World War II protests of Black Americans tired of racial segregation, and the 1946 Supreme Court decision of Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia that ruled that racial segregation on interstate common carriers ( buses, planes, ships, and trains) was unconstitutional inspired the creation of the Fellowship of Reconciliation that launched the first “freedom ride” that would prefigured those that occurred in the early 1960s by a decade. Rev. Vivian began fighting against racial injustice in Peoria, Illinois, by using sit-in non-violent civil disobedience demonstrations to force the desegregating of Barton’s Cafeteria in 1947.
Vivian studied for the ministry at American Baptist College in Nashville, Tennessee, and, there, in 1959, Vivian met Rev. James Lawson, who was teaching Gandhian non-violent direction action to the Nashville Student Movement. Soon Lawson’s students, including Diane Nash, James Bevel, Rev. Bernard Lafayette and Mrs. Colia Lafayette, John Lewis, and others from American Baptist College, Fisk University, and Tennessee State University, organized a systematic nonviolent sit-in campaign at local lunch counters. On April 19, 1960, 4,000 demonstrators peacefully walked to Nashville City Hall, where Vivian and Diane Nash discussed the situation with Nashville Mayor Ben West. As a result, Mayor West publicly agreed that racial discrimination was morally wrong. Many of the students who participated in the Nashville Student Movement soon took on major leadership roles in both the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).Vivian helped found the Nashville Christian Leadership Conference, and helped organize the first sit-ins in Nashville in 1960 and the first civil rights march in 1961. In 1961, Vivian participated in Freedom Rides. He worked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King as the national director of affiliates for the SCLC. In the summer of 1965 following the Selma Voting Rights Movement, Vivian created and directed an educational program, Vision, and placed 702 Alabama Black students in college with scholarships (the U.S. Department of Education adopted this project as this Upward Bound program). In 1970, Vivian published his first book Black Power and the American Myth was the first book on the Civil Rights Movement written member of Martin Luther King’s SCLC staff. In the 1970s Vivian moved to Atlanta, and in 1977 founded the Black Action Strategies and Information Center (BASICS), a consultancy on race relations in the workplace and other contexts. In 1979 he co-founded, with Anne Braden, the Center for Democratic Renewal (initially as the National Anti-Klan Network), an organization where blacks and whites worked together in response to white supremacist activity. In 1984 he served in Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign, as the national deputy director for clergy. In 1994 he helped to establish, and served on the board of Capitol City Bank and Trust Co., a black-owned Atlanta bank.He also served on the board of Every Church a Peace Church. Vivian continued to speak publicly and offer workshops, and did so at many conferences around the country and the world, including with the United Nations. He was featured as an activist and an analyst in the civil rights documentary Eyes on the Prize, and was featured in a PBS special, The Healing Ministry of Dr. C. T. Vivian. He made numerous personal appearances on nationally televised shows including: Oprah, Montel Williams, and the Donahue, and he was the focus of the biography Challenge and Change: The Story of Civil Rights Activist C.T. Vivian by Lydia Walker. In 2008, Vivian founded and incorporated the C. T. Vivian Leadership Institute, Inc. (CTVLI) to “Create a Model Leadership Culture in Atlanta” Georgia. The C. T. Vivian Leadership Institute conceived, developed and implemented the “Yes, We Care” campaign on December 18, 2008 (four days after the City of Atlanta turned the water off at Morris Brown College (MBC) and, over a period of two and a half months, mobilized the Atlanta community to donate in excess of $500,000 directly to Morris Brown as “bridge funding.” That effort saved the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) and allowed the college to negotiate with the city which ultimately restored the water services to the college.On August 8, 2013, President Barak Obama named Vivian as a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The citation in the press release reads as follows:
C. T. Vivian is a distinguished minister, author, and organizer. A leader in the Civil Rights Movement and friend to Martin Luther King, Jr., he participated in Freedom Rides and sit-ins across our country. Vivian also helped found numerous civil rights organizations, including Vision, the National Anti-Klan Network, and the Center for Democratic Renewal. In 2012, he returned to serve as interim President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Vivian died on July 17, 2020, in Atlanta two weeks before his 96th birthday.