Reverend C. T. Vivian sheds light on roots of Civil Rights movement

By Victoria McDonald • Guest Columnist

Reverend C. T. Vivian is a living legend of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. He was a rider on the first “Freedom Bus” that went to Jackson, Miss. He worked on the executive staff of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

A Baptist preacher, he began his non-violence approach in 1947 to end Peoria, Ill., segregated lunch counters. In 1960, he organized the first sit-ins in Nashville and the first civil rights march there in 1961.

On Saturday morning, Feb. 2, at NCCAT, I had the privilege to hear him speak at a teachers’ seminar, “Speaking Out: North Carolina’s Stories of Civil Rights.”

It was fascinating to hear him speak about Dr. King and his legacy. Not once did he address him as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but called him Martin. It was done with love and respect. He said that Martin was a “spiritual man,” not a “religious man.”

Rev. Vivian told the room of about 40 teachers that racial issues still had to be solved if this nation was to go forward. He reminded them that cheap laws did not change anything. It had to be on a spiritual level. He told the teachers, “You can’t have a strong democracy without teachers.”

He said that our society is weak because we have not solved our racial problems. In addition to our racial problems, our democracy, our churches, and schools have failed.

With his wit and a pleasant smile, Vivian charmed his audiences with a childhood memory of his first days at Lincoln Elementary. Being a new Southern student, in the middle of school year in Illinois, he was picked on. Therefore, he would sneak out the back door and run home.

One day, his classmates were lying in wait for him when he attempted to race home. They surrounded him at the sandbox. The leader of the pack told one of his friends to fight CT. The friend got the short end of the deal. Another friend was selected to fight. Again, CT won the battle.

Rev. Vivian said that he realized that he could not fight all of them; he pointed to the leader and told him that he could take him on. The boy refused and left with his followers. It was at this point that Vivian said that he decided to try to solve problems with non-violence. And he attributed that non-violent approach to his grandmother.

During the question and answer session, Rev. Vivian spoke of a triple evil that King wanted the nations to overcome. These evils are racial injustice, poverty and war.

He said that Martin’s plans were already set into motion when an assassin’s bullet took King’s life. With passing of the Civil Rights Laws (1964), Vivian said that the racial issue could be handled with the left hand.

The 1968 Poor People’s Campaign was the second phase of King’s plan. It did not focus on just poor blacks, but all poor people in the country. That number included Native Americans, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and poor whites.

After accomplishing economic justice with a non-violent approach, King challenged the Vietnam War, which diminished his popularity. Rev. Vivian said that Martin knew he was walking on thin ice when challenged the validity of the war.

Rev. Vivian said that Martin was always late for an event. Tardiness was due to the fact people continued to call him. Therefore, it was Vivian’s job to warmup the crowd until King made his appearance.

Martin had a sense of humor. He joked with his lieutenants and they joked with him. Vivian said that Martin, Jesse Jackson and others were pillow fighting shortly before his death.

At lunch, Rev. Vivian told us about his wife. He mentioned her because he feels that the women of the civil rights leaders’ story should be told. His wife wrote a biography of Coretta Scott King. When Mrs. King died, her publisher wanted Mrs. Vivian to bring the book up to date. Although his wife was ill, their two daughters came to their mother’s aid.

It was very interesting to watch this 83- year-old man empower these black and white schoolteachers from across North Carolina.

(Victoria A. Casey McDonald lives in Jackson County.)

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