Thank God for civil rights pioneers like Cordy Tindell "C.T." Vivian, who steadfastly believed that their fight for justice — even social justice — could not be separated from their faith.
Vivian and his friend Martin Luther King Jr. were so well known for their contributions to civil rights that we tend to forget what gifted writers and powerful preachers they were. In fact, King called Vivian "the greatest preacher ever to live."
Throughout American history, Black people have had to rely on the church to lead the struggle for liberation and racial justice. Sadly, the Black church has been unjustly blamed today for much of the ills in our community. But I'm hopeful that the work, dedication and continued prayers of the church will be a catalyst in turning lives and the situation around.
It was with a sense of sadness and hope that I recently finished Vivian's posthumous memoir, "It's in the Action: Memories of a Nonviolent Warrior" (NewSouth Books), as we get ready to mark the anniversary of his death.
"Even though America was a democracy, we knew it wasn't a democracy to us; it was supposed to be a Christian culture, but it wasn't. Ironically, the saving grace for us was that Blacks and Whites weren’t in the same church," Vivian writes. "With few exceptions, Whites didn’t want us praying with them. And for Southern Whites in particular, the church wasn’t really God’s, it was theirs. By having our own churches, we could have our faith without any people who opposed the movement telling us we had to obey them. Regardless of our particular denominations, we all became one faith. We were Christians, and it was God who would save us from the terrible conditions we endured. It’s no surprise that the leadership in the civil rights movement came out of the church."
Vivian died July 17, 2020, at age 95, only hours before John Lewis, his longtime friend and fellow civil rights icon.
Vivan and co-author Steve Fiffer collaborated on "It's in the Action" until Vivian's death, leaving Fiffer to finish the project through various other resources.
"By the time we started this effort, Dr. Vivian was approaching his ninety-fourth birthday," Fiffer writes in the preface. "As the months went by, memories faded. The good news was that by that time we had covered the seminal years of the civil rights movement through 1970."
What we get is a book about a life of struggle, perseverance, compassion, activism and faith. It covers Vivian's memories of being raised by his mother and grandmother; integration in schools; the call to ministry; getting sucker-punched by a sheriff; rolling with the Freedom Riders; being beaten and jailed; losing King; and much more packed in 173 pages.
Among the chapters are "When We Came out of Slavery," "Is Segregation Christian?", "The Disease of Racism" and "Prophets Never Stop Serving." The book also includes notes from well-known friends and officials and Vivian's eulogy.
In his final days, Vivian never forgot the connection between justice and his faith.
"Dr. Vivian asked (daughter Jo Anna) to read 'Amos,' his favorite book from the Bible, to him," Fiffer writes. "Amos 5:24 — paraphrased by Martin Luther King Jr. in his 'I Have a Dream' speech — was a cherished passage: But let justice roll down the like waters, and righteousness an ever-flowering stream.'"
Vivian, who was born in Missouri and grew up in western Illinois, said the greatest influence in his life was his grandmother, who developed in him a passion for reading and for the church.
"Religion was just as important to my grandmother as education. My own sense of faith was born from going with her to Church of God the Christ in Boonville (Missouri)," he writes. "I loved the church from the earliest age. How much? One Sunday when I was five, my grandmother told me I had to stay home from services. I was so disappointed that I ran out of the house and lay in a rut in the road. I was going to let the cars run over me if I couldn’t go to church."
Vivian got involved with activism early, participating in his first sit-in in Peoria, Illinois, in 1947, long before the rise of the civil rights movement. It started a life of activism in such places as Nashville, Tennessee (where he attended seminary in 1955); Birmingham, Alabama (1963); St. Augustine, Florida (1964); and Selma, Alabama (1965). He would go on to become a lieutenant in King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
"If you're in the minority, you need a movement, and if people won't move, you can't have a movement. Martin (Luther King) was special because he got people to move and, therefore, he started a movement," Vivian writes. "If they hadn't moved, he could have talked behind the pulpit forever, but nothing would have actually been accomplished. Movements need more than justifiable anger. There needs to be strategy and goal. What you want for yourself and your children and the next generation is more important than having bad feelings. That is why we were able to enact nonviolent direct action as opposed to swinging back."
One of Vivian's most infamous moments was when a violent act was committed against him.
On Feb. 15, 1965, Vivian was leading a group of prospective voters to the courthouse steps in Selma when he was confronted by Sheriff Jim Clark. The two men got into each other's faces. After a few minutes, Clark punched Vivian in the face.
“I was hurting,” Vivian writes, “but brushed myself off and rose quickly … We can never allow violence to defeat nonviolence. You have to resist the impulse to turn in the other direction and leave. You have to stay.”
The incident was caught on camera, giving power and national and international publicity to the civil rights movement.
Andrew Young, Vivian's friend and former diplomat, is quoted in the book as saying, "No one gave C.T. any instructions to do that. It took a lot of courage to get in Jim Clark’s face. But if he had not taken that blow in Selma, we would not have had the Voting Rights Act.”
The civil rights movement, and, in a sense, many of our Black churches owe a debt of gratitude to Vivian, who President Barack Obama honored with a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.