My much-beloved friend Rev. C.T. Vivian was a leader in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a confidant of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a role model for so many of us in the 1960s era of civil rights activism, and a mighty and indispensable long-haul moral warrior for justice. He was also a treasured personal friend known for being unfailingly gracious, generous, warm and loving. I keep a photo in my home office of C.T. with my whole family taken when my husband Peter and I took our children and grandchildren on a civil rights tour through the South some years ago. His kindness radiated in his smile.
Rev. Vivian participated in his first sit-in at a Peoria, Illinois, lunch counter in 1947, an early example of the success nonviolent sit-in protests could have. As a leader in the Nashville sit-in movement, one of the ministers who joined Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) members on Freedom Rides into Mississippi, and as an SCLC leader bringing people to register to vote at Selma, Alabama’s courthouse he faced violence repeatedly. Although beaten and jailed, he never wavered and, like Dr. King and Gandhi, believed hatred and violence always destroyed more than they created.
A violent episode in Selma exemplified his dignified courage before our nation. In February 1965, television cameras filmed him leading a voting rights protest at the courthouse where he was physically blocked at the door by rabid segregationist Sheriff Jim Clark. “This courthouse does not belong to you, Clark,” C.T. told him. “This courthouse belongs to the people of Dallas County. … You can turn your back on me, but you cannot turn your back upon the idea of justice. You can turn your back now and you can keep the club in your hand, but you cannot beat down justice. And we will register to vote, because as citizens of these United States we have the right to do it …” The cameras rolled as Sheriff Clark punched C.T. in the mouth and knocked him to the ground. C.T. got back up and kept speaking as he was dragged away bleeding to jail.
The resulting news broadcasts of his beating and arrest helped bring national attention to Selma’s voting rights movement. That became a harsh spotlight during the follow-up actions over the next months, including three Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights marches, the Bloody Sunday attack at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and the murders of nonviolent protesters Jimmie Lee Jackson and Rev. James Reeb, which led to the signing of the federal Voting Rights Act in June. C.T. said of the courthouse attack: “Everything I am as a minister, as an African American, as a civil rights activist and a struggler for justice for everyone came together in that moment.”
C.T. was a warrior for justice his entire life, including protecting the right to vote. When President Obama awarded C.T. the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013, he called him a “stalwart activist on the march toward racial equality,” saying, “Rosa Parks said of him, ‘Even after things had been taken care of and we had our rights, he was still out there, inspiring the next generation,’ including me … and at 89 years old, Reverend Vivian is still out there, still in the action, pushing us closer to our founding ideals.” When C.T. passed away two weeks before his 96th birthday, President Obama said, “I have to imagine that seeing the largest protest movement in history unfold over his final months gave the reverend a final dose of hope before his long and well-deserved rest.”
Like our dear mutual friend John Lewis who passed away the same day, there is no doubt that C.T. is cheering on the fight for justice in heaven right now. Rev. Vivian told young leaders at a Children’s Defense Fund event he believed they were inheriting the world at a unique point in history when the chance to create a more peaceful and just future for all people was not just possible, but necessary for continued survival and that “this is the moment we have waited for … We talked about a new world coming. We talked about all of that, right? Now that it’s here, we’ve got to make it real.” I hope the next generation will heed this great servant leader’s wisdom in this darkest hour until equal opportunity is real for everyone in our nation. The way all of us can honor Rev. C.T. Vivian’s legacy, leadership and vision for a new nation and world right now is to vote, vote, vote!
Edelman is founder and president emerita of Children’s Defense Fund.