I was 14 the summer of the 1963 March on Washington, getting ready to go to 10th grade. I was too young to participate and too old for it not to have a significant impact. I had been angry about racial discrimination from a young age and wanted to see things change.
I grew up in a newspaper family so I was particularly aware of events going on around me. At the same time, my family was solidly middle class and I lived in a black cocoon, a mostly black world that was comfortable and full of love. In some ways, this blunted any urgent need to change things.
Now as I look back, I am so grateful for those people who were some 10 years my senior who took on leadership roles to make the change happen and in an urgent way. Recently, I had a chance to be around two civil rights giants: Rita Jackson Samuels, founder of the Georgia Coalition of Black Women, and the Rev. C.T. Vivian, one of this year’s Presidential Medal of Freedom winners.
I was in awe as I heard them talk. Rita was the first black professional on a Georgia governor’s staff when she went to work for Jimmy Carter after he was elected governor in 1970. And she is responsible for getting Martin Luther King Jr.’s portrait hung on the wall inside the state Capitol. It was the first portrait of an African American to be hung there. Her current project is to record an interview series with activists from the Civil Rights Movement. She asked me to interview Rev. Dr. Vivian. I was thrilled to do so.
In addition to Dr. Vivian, she lined up Mayor Kasim Reed to interview Andy Young; Monica Pearson to interview Xernona Clayton; Carlton Brown to interview Rev. Joseph Lowery; Shirley Franklin to interview Evelyn Lowery; Rev. Raphael Warnock to interview John Lewis and Michael Julian Bond to interview his father Julian Bond. This is going to be an awesome record that Rita says she wants to share for future generations. The recordings were made at e3 Creative by Earnest J. Davis III.
The best part of interviewing Dr. Vivian is that it took place on the day he got the call from the White House informing him of his selection as a Presidential Medal Winner. There were four of us there on Aug. 6: me, Rita, Earnest and Felicia Davis, president of Women Flying High. He answered his cell phone and we stood there with our mouths hanging open as we could overhear Valerie Jarrett informing him of his selection and swore him to secrecy until the formal announcement from the White House.
When he hung up the call, we all hooped a hollered. We were so excited to be there and witness this so well-deserved recognition. Dr. Vivian, at 89, was one of the older lieutenants to Martin Luther King Jr., having worked Illinois, Nashville and Chattanooga nonviolent protests before joining King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
I’ll never forget the “Eyes on the Prize” segment where Dr. Vivian is standing at the bottom of the courthouse steps in Selma, Alabama, demanding the right to vote in 1965. He said he wasn’t afraid. “We just wanted to know what was wrong with these people,” Vivian said.
Dr. Vivian came out of retirement to work as president of the SCLC, and says the Presidential Medal will help him do even more. “It’s going to help me do things I’ve been working to get done,” he said. He said one of his big concerns is the number of black men in jail and young black men who are high school drop outs. “How are we going to deal with this?” The huge number of men in prison and dropouts will determine how we will be treated and how life will be for all of us in the future, he said.
He concluded that King’s “Dream Speech” 50 years ago was a call to action, and that is exactly what we need now.
Yes, we’ve come a long way – no more white only and colored only signs – but we have a tremendous challenge to rescue the thousands who are in prison or who have dropped out into the margins of society.