Rev. C.T. Vivian has been referred to as a Lieutenant or field general of Dr. Martin Luther King. He came to the task uniquely suited to the post by background, intellect and disposition. He was his mother’s cherished only child, reared in a home they shared with a doting grandmother. Rev. Vivian told a story that at age five he loved going to his grandmother’s Church of God in Christ so much that he once protested her decision not to take him with her by lying in the street. Her strong faith and religious belief became an asset that allowed him to confront racist white Southerners without hatred.
His mother and grandmother moved the family to Macomb, Illinois in 1930 precisely because the schools were not segregated and were considered to be of higher quality. Vivian related that he was one of only three Black children in the school, where he studied French and was well-liked by his peers. At one point one of them confided, “we would like to invite you to our parties, but our parents won’t let us.” Vivian indicated that the exclusion stung, but helped him begin to understand the difference between social and institutional racism.
In 1947, eight years before he met Dr. King, Rev. Vivian he had already been involved with an integrated church-based group working to undo de facto segregation of Peoria, IL restaurants. He enrolled in seminary in Nashville in 1955 where he joined a group of activists in forming the Nashville branch of SCLC. In 1961, he joined the Freedom Rides into Jackson, Mississippi. There, he was arrested and badly beaten in Mississippi’s notorious Parchman prison.
That brings up an important point about Rev. Vivian. Despite his intellect, charisma and commitment, he was not a typical general. In military battles, generals don’t always ride with the troops. Instead, considered too valuable to bear the brunt of the battle on the front lines, they remain ensconced near the rear with their aides. Not Rev. C.T. Vivian. He took as many beatings in places like Selma, Alabama and Jackson, Mississippi as any other activist of the era.
Rev. Vivian’s story is not entirely unique. Many of the young, determined activists who became his movement colleagues came from modest, but comfortable homes. At one point, Vivian’s family had a farm and a house in town. His social conscience was influenced by his grandmother. Once, she gave shelter in her home to a battered woman, whose common law husband burned Vivian’s family home to the ground in an act of angry revenge. Surely his grandmother’s selfless kindness influenced Rev. Vivian’s statement decades later that “only those things that allow you to help others are worth the effort.”
By 1965 he was an SCLC Aide, helping Dr. King craft strategy for the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In that same year, his early preparation gave him the confidence to attempt to reason with Selma’s infamous Sheriff Jim Clark, telling him, “don’t you know that you can’t stop Black people from voting without affecting the rights of all citizens?” For his trouble, Rev. Vivian was punched in the face, poked in the ribs with a Billy club, taken to jail and severely beaten.
He remained an activist his entire life. We owe Rev. Vivian and his colleagues a debt of gratitude for playing a large role in breathing a new dimension of justice into the ongoing saga of America. But just as importantly, we owe it to ourselves to study the lives of this latter generation of Founding Mothers and Fathers in preparation for the struggle that continues.