C.T. Vivian Essay

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Civil rights leader the Rev. C.T. Vivian, who worked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), is placing a portion of his and his late wife's papers with the Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL) at Emory University.

Emory officials made the announcement at a speech Vivian gave on campus Tuesday, Jan. 21 as part of Emory's King Week celebration.

"It's one of the most significant additions to our African American and civil rights material, and a great opportunity for students and scholars to appreciate a life so fully lived by someone who made such important contributions to the world," says MARBL director Rosemary Magee. "In addition, it further establishes Emory as a place that recognizes the history of our own era, and helps us understand how we arrived where we are today and projects these values into the future."

The collection includes a number of papers from Octavia Geans Vivian (1928-2011), who supported her husband's work with the SCLC and was instrumental in the local civil rights movement. She also wrote "Coretta," a biography of Coretta Scott King, originally published in 1970 and revised with additional material in 2006 after Mrs. King's death.

The Vivians' papers contain binders of notes and articles pertaining to civil rights activities and issues, some of C.T.'s essays and SCLC work, Octavia's work on "Coretta," congressional materials related to the creation of Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a holiday, as well as periodicals, programs from King Day celebrations across the country, C.T.'s outlines for speeches, including notes he jotted on napkins and event programs, and other ephemera.

"Some of our papers can't stand the test of time," Vivian said last week. "They need a place to be properly preserved, and Emory does an excellent job."

Octavia collected newspaper clippings of SCLC marches and other civil rights activities, and C.T. says that's one revealing aspect that scholars and researchers will discover in the Vivian papers – how two newspapers in the same town would cover the same story quite differently. "One would try to cover up the past, and one would tell the reality of what was happening," Vivian says. "There were multiple interpretations of the problems."

The SCLC archive is housed at MARBL, and Vivian was instrumental in bringing those records to Emory, says Randall Burkett, curator of MARBL's African American Collections.

"I'm thrilled we're able to have the Vivians' collection of papers, which will anchor our civil rights collections," Burkett says. "These are the papers of people who were on the scene, who were conscious of the importance of what was happening. They knew that the movement was going to change America, and they wanted to preserve their role in that."

About the Vivians

A Baptist minister, Cordy Tindell Vivian is a living legend in the civil rights movement, having joined the SCLC executive staff alongside Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963. Born in 1924 in Howard, Mo., and educated at American Baptist College in Nashville, he participated in his first lunch counter sit-in in 1947. He took part in the Freedom Rides to end segregation in the early 1960s; he was arrested after one Freedom Ride in 1961 and sent to Parchman Prison in Mississippi, where he was beaten by guards.

He is perhaps best known for his altercation on March 7, 1965 — Bloody Sunday — with Sheriff Jim Clark, who punched Vivian on the courthouse steps in Selma, Ala., as he tried to escort a group of African Americans inside to register to vote. The television news coverage of that day's police brutality was an eye-opener for the American public, and Bloody Sunday was a driving force behind President Lyndon Johnson's signing of the Voting Rights Act in August 1965.

Vivian became a well-known and respected preacher and went on to found or co-found other civil rights and anti-racism organizations, including the Center for Democratic Renewal (originally called the Anti-Klan Network), an organization that infiltrated and monitored hate groups.

In addition to authoring "Coretta," Octavia Vivian was both a historian of the movement and an active participant, as were many of the wives of the SCLC leaders. Octavia was a member of the SCLC/Women's Organizational Movement for Equality Now Inc., and she documented the role of women in the civil rights movement as well as her husband's role in the struggle for equality. The two were married for 58 years.

C.T. Vivian's relationship with Emory

Soon after Burkett began his post at Emory as bibliographer of African American collections in 1997, he met Vivian through an Atlanta rare book dealer who had helped Vivian build an extraordinary collection of rare African American historical books. Burkett and the library staff were creating an exhibition of rare books and invited three Atlanta-area top collectors to submit books for the display; Vivian was one of the three.

A longstanding relationship began soon afterward, when the library acquired a number of rare Afro Americana books from Vivian's personal collection, including "Banneker's Almanack" for 1793 and Harriet Wilson's "Our Nig," published in 1859.

In 1999, MARBL (then called Special Collections) and the university hosted a performance of James Weldon Johnson's "God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse," and invited Vivian and other area preachers to deliver the poetic sermons to a full house at Glenn Auditorium.

Vivian was featured prominently in the recent MARBL exhibition "And the Struggle Continues: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference's Fight for Social Change," at Emory's Robert W. Woodruff Library throughout 2013, which highlighted items from the SCLC collection.

Most recently, Vivian was the guest of honor for a public conversation at Emory's Robert W. Woodruff Library, the day after he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, from President Barack Obama at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 20, 2013.

The Vivian papers will remain unprocessed for some time but are available for research by contacting MARBL at marbl@emory.edu or 404-727-6887. Additional general information can be found at the Using MARBL webpage.

“You are the Salt of the earth … You are the Light of the World.” -- Matthew 5:13-14, KJV

“We’ve got to find some way to bring together those who want to work for the good of all of us.” – Dr. C. T. Vivian

“I’ve just met the most amazing man!” These were my thoughts as I exited a warm and intensely edifying conversation with the distinguished Dr. C. T. Vivian. I’d asked to meet with Dr. Vivian for a variety of reasons: First, I wanted to hear his thoughts on what I and many others perceive as our nation’s increasingly oppressive socio-political landscape. Second, I wanted to understand his thinking about contemporary protest and resistance movements against social injustice and political repression in the U.S. Third, I simply wanted to learn all that I could from this civil rights legend and modern-day icon. And so, I was blessed to listen for a while, to this wise, witty and very gracious man of honor.

Dr. Cordy Tindell (C. T.) Vivian is likely most known for having endured violent personal assaults, imprisonment and torture during his participation in the 1960s-era Civil Rights Movement to secure voting rights for African Americans. However, Dr. Vivian’s legacy involves much, much more. For example:

> He is the Baptist minister Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called “The greatest preacher who ever lived.”

> He was recently awarded the highest civilian honor in the U.S.: The Presidential Medal of Freedom.

> He served as consultant to five U.S. Presidents and several international Heads of State.

> He founded numerous organizations to support educational scholarships and leadership training for hundreds of disenfranchised students.

> He amassed an esteemed history of “firsts”, e.g., organized some of the nation’s first Freedom Rides, sit- ins, and Civil Rights marches, and

> He transformed the lives of Chicago-based gang members by collaborating with gang leadership and Union officials to locate hundreds of jobs for their employment.

For seventy plus years now, Dr. Vivian has passionately dedicated his life to nonviolent activism for racial equality in the United States, and today he is still going strong. In recent cameo appearances on BET’s award-winning Being Mary Jane and popular new series The Quad, this now 90-something leader shared his perpetually passionate call for love-centered social and political action as the purest means of acquiring human rights for all.

To be clear, Dr. Vivian’s work and sacrifices have deep historical roots in the quest for equality for African Americans in the U.S. In 1947, decades before the beginning of the renowned Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, a 23-year old Vivian joined others to execute one of the earliest nonviolent sit-in campaigns in the nation. The protest took place in Peoria, Illinois where activists successfully integrated Barton’s Cafeteria which previously refused to serve blacks. It was during the Peoria protests that Dr. Vivian met Octavia Geans, the woman who would become his wife and life partner in nonviolent activism until her death some 58 years later. According to Dr. Vivian, from the moment he and Octavia heard of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and learned about his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), they were ecstatic. “We knew Martin was the real deal,” said Vivian, “and we were happy about being a part of something that would change the world.” And so, with Octavia at his side that’s exactly what they did.

“We were willing to die.” – Dr. C. T. Vivian

It was in his service as one of Dr. King’s Lieutenants that Dr. Vivian would be confronted with some of the most violent and potentially lethal experiences of his life. For example, it was following the infamous 1961 firebombing of a busload of Freedom Riders near Anniston, Alabama and despite subsequent terroristic threats from mobs of angry whites that Dr. Vivian continued to volunteer for those now legendary bus rides. In fact, it was his commitment to the cause of the Freedom Rides that led to him being arrested and confined to Mississippi’s notorious Parchman State Prison Farm where hundreds of Civil Rights protestors were jailed and tortured. Later, in 1965 while leading a Voting Rights protest, Dr. Vivian was violently assaulted on the Courthouse steps of Selma, Alabama by the County Sheriff. It was Vivian’s nonviolent yet persistent response to this highly-publicized confrontation that many credit with being the pivotal moment in securing the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

But of course, that was then – a time when persistent protests and relentless activism were needed to assure equal rights and social justice for all citizens as granted under the U.S. Constitution. And of course, this is now – a time when persistent protests and relentless activism are still needed to assure equal rights and social justice for all citizens as granted under the U.S. Constitution. And it is the circumstances of now that concern me deeply, and led me to Dr. Vivian.

In today’s America, millions of U.S. citizens are disturbed by the federal government’s increasingly- apparent anti-civil liberties agenda. This appears most evident in recent proposals and legislation presenting ominous threats to decades of civil rights gains and the democratic principles that have long characterized this nation. Especially troubling is the painful realization that despite the loss of countless lives for advancements in socio-economic equality, voting rights, education and social justice, persons of color are specifically, in greater peril today than at any other time in the 21st century. Given that, I am happy to share below the very candid, sometimes blistering musings of Dr. Vivian on a series of topics related to the shifting and disturbing socio-political landscape of the United States.

On the recent presidential election

“Everyone was so certain that Clinton was going to win. We can’t figure out how decent people could vote for him [Drumpf].” - Dr. C. T. Vivian

[Note: During our talk, Dr. Vivian would not speak the name of the 45th elected U.S. President, a person whom I reference as “Drumpf” (his family’s ancestral name) as a reminder to all that Trump’s family emigrated to the U.S. and changed its surname from Drumpf to Trump.]

On the current U.S. presidential administration

“This person [Drumpf] has taken us back. We don’t know what he will do. He never tells the truth or says anything that’s real. He knew how to stir up fear, and it worked. But it’s messing up government, period. And with a guy like this we’re not certain what he might do at a given time and place.” - Dr. C. T. Vivian

On current black-white race relations

“The U.S. has been more racist than most other countries. Now, we’re in a situation where he [Drumpf] has created a problem between poor whites and blacks. We know this is true because the average poor white doesn’t want to be aligned with blacks; they feel they are better than us. But somehow, we have to re-do a good deal of what we thought we had done. And we’ve got to offset racism in all its forms.” - Dr. C. T. Vivian

On the U.S. as a Christian nation

“We’ve never really been Christian in America because racism by itself is very destructive to any kind of real Christianity. You can’t be Christian and racist at the same time; that’s not taking Christianity seriously. That’s trying to fool God!” - Dr. C. T. Vivian

On the ongoing struggle for human rights

“We so want it [human rights], but we know that it will always be a struggle and we’ve got to prepare for this. We talk about the world as if it’s a nicer place than it really may be. Decency and good may not be on our side.” - Dr. C. T. Vivian

On the need for African Americans to hold the U.S. accountable

“If not for black people, this nation would not be held accountable for living up to its principles. As black people, we have to teach white America how to be Christian. And being Christian means love, truth, and justice.” - Dr. C. T. Vivian

On the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s

“’Old school’ changed the world. And because we had a man like Martin King, we had a whole organized structure led by ministers across the south. The whole world knew who we were and what we stood for, and we were willing to die for what we believed.” - Dr. C. T. Vivian

On the Black Lives Matter Movement

“I’ve gone to a couple of their meetings. And when I first saw them, I thought they were not organized enough, but now they are coming around to where they have more leadership. Now, we don’t necessarily need one central leader, but we do need organization and clear leadership.” - Dr. C. T. Vivian

On hope for the future

“You’re just like I am. You hope that it’s going to be better. You’re dreaming. Poor whites are back on the scene and they’re going to create more problems than what we had before. And that’s my real fear, all these poor whites. He [Drumpf] knows how to play them and work them. We’re going to have to go back to thinking about how we got where we are.” - Dr. C. T. Vivian

I decided to end our chat by posing two personal questions to Dr. Vivian. First, I wanted to know what accomplishments he is most proud. Second, I wondered how we [African Americans] might best honor his decades of sacrifice.

After a few moments of quiet contemplation, to my first question he humbly replied: “I am most proud of the fact that I was called into ministry, and that led me into not just being a pulpit minister, but going beyond that to being a part of Martin King’s organization.” And then, in response to my second inquiry he added, “The point is, there were not only black folk, but white folk too who were involved in the Movement. They worked together, black and white. That’s what we need today.”

These days, Dr. Vivian remains an activist in the ongoing pursuit to hold the U.S. accountable to its documented democratic principles. In that regard, he is a frequent speaker at national and international conferences and other gatherings where the wisdom of his experiences is invited and cherished. He is also on the Board of Directors for several organizations, including his own BASIC Diversity, Inc., the nation’s oldest diversity consulting firm, and the C. T. Vivian Leadership Institute (CTVLI), an Atlanta-based organization dedicated to community development and sustainability.

To learn more about supporting the work of Dr. C.T. Vivian and volunteering with CTVLI contact: givingback@ctvli.org.

“You are made by the struggles you choose.” – Dr. C. T. Vivian


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