C.T. Vivian seemed to muster courage in the face of violence
He was a master strategist in the movement, and one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s most trusted deputies
More than 60 years since the civil rights movement, we have made monuments of its men. This week, we mourn the loss of two of its greatest icons, U.S. Rep. John Lewis and Rev. Cordy Tindell “C.T.” Vivian, lifelong friends and comrades in the struggle who, perhaps fittingly, both died only hours apart on July 17. Lewis was 80. Vivian was 95.
Dozens of those who knew and admired Vivian are still with us. From his friends and fellow lieutenants in the movement, we get an insight into his fears, his hopes and the arc of a life that spanned nearly a century. The Undefeated interviewed Virgil Wood, a lifelong friend, clergyman, activist and educator who organized shoulder to shoulder with Vivian.
He was a master strategist in the movement, and one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s most trusted and closest deputies. “There are several things to say about C.T.,” Wood began. “I suspect the first part is his Nashville journey,” a reference to the now-famed incubator of student activists that included Diane Nash, James Bevel, Lewis and Bernard Lafayette, under the leadership of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) coordinator James Lawson and minister and author Kelly Miller Smith. Many of these students were members of the SNCC and organized a campaign of successful sit-ins and protests in Nashville, Tennessee, besides leading the Freedom Riders.
When he first met Vivian, Wood was rising through the ranks of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the famed organization of clergy members that included King, Joseph E. Lowery, Ralph David Abernathy, Dorothy Cotton, Bayard Rustin and Fred Shuttlesworth.
The Nashville leg of the movement “really gave us the first SCLC direct action,” he said. Direct action, as it has been described by activists and historians, was one of the SCLC’s most effective strategies, for which Vivian would become one of its most celebrated engineers. In the present day, the civil rights movement is often miscategorized as being passive and our images of that era mostly sum it up as marching. That was far from the case, and the direct action strategy of civil disobedience and deliberate disruption that Vivian advised King and others to implement was the core of the nonviolent movement. Disruption, Vivian and SCLC leadership believed, would force the federal government’s hand to hear Black grievances and thoroughly embarrass the government for its negligence of the degradation and violence Black protesters and everyday civilians were experiencing throughout the Jim Crow South. Committing to direct action required participants to accept that they may die in the protests.
“When [ SNCC members] resumed the Freedom Rides,” Wood recalled somberly, “when they left, they all signed their wills because they were ready in case their lives were taken. Just a sense of courage.” Courage is a word that describes Vivian well. Perhaps his most famous moment in the movement was during a fiery showdown against the notoriously brutish Selma, Alabama, sheriff Jim Clark. As he had done in so many counties before, Vivian was registering Black voters. Vivian’s efforts had sent 1,400 Black Selma residents down to the courthouse to register since arriving in Selma, and Clark ordered a snaking line of 100 of them off the premises that rainy day.
“You can turn your back on me,” Vivian fired at the sheriff, pointing his finger. “But you cannot turn your back upon the idea of justice. You can turn your back now and you can keep your club in your hand, but you cannot beat down justice.” Clark responded by slugging Vivian in the face, sending his lanky body flailing down the courthouse steps. Vivian was arrested, but his strategy won the day. His actions had provoked exactly the revelation of white Southern brutality that he knew could not be ignored when broadcast into televisions across the country. He succeeded in proving that Black liberation exposed what the Jim Crow South was.
“It was his brilliance and his courage and his humanity,” Wood said in describing the standoff in Selma. “He was just a sweetheart of a human being. I just loved him so much.”
In his keen aptitude for strategy, Vivian “turned Jim Crow against itself. I call it moral jiujitsu,” Wood described fondly. “C.T. must have weighed about 160 pounds, right? He was every inch and every pound of courage, intellect and compassion, all of that in one.”
That compassion in particular is one of Wood’s most lingering memories of his friend, and a consistent description I’ve heard of all who knew Vivian. Even those who worked with him briefly, including my own father, describe a man with a jubilant and infectious warmth, and an energy that belied his age. A pep in his step, I described to Wood as he laughed. “Yes, that’s my friend,” he said. Even when spreading his message to small communities far from the limelight of any media interest, the small-town Missouri native always made himself accessible to people’s needs wherever he could be of service, and had a glint in his eye when it came to looking out for those in need.
“It came out, for example, in St. Augustine,” Wood said, referring to an occasion in which the city of St. Augustine, Florida, celebrated its 400th anniversary and local civil rights leaders invited Vivian, who was by then nationally known as an SCLC frontman. Wood was, at that time, a clergyman and activist in Boston, and several Boston bishops and their wives traveled to St. Augustine in 1964 to participate in the local efforts. The visiting northerners, some of them white, were tense while driving around the city, not sure of what the Jim Crow South might hurl at what segregationists often called “outside agitators.”
“C.T. was the guardian angel, I would say” of the visiting guests, comforting and joking with them and seeing that no one had reason to feel afraid in his presence. And yet, Vivian had every reason to be terrified for himself. Wood did not mention that during that extended campaign of peaceful protest in St. Augustine, in which the invited leadership joined King, Vivian was nearly drowned by a white mob who beat Black beach dwellers with chains on one of the city’s public beaches. I could not help but be affected by all that was unsaid in Wood’s story. Vivian seemed to repeatedly muster courage in the face of deadly violence, not for himself, but because he knew what it meant to others.
There will be a flurry of memorials and obituaries for Vivian this week, but his death should also remind us that those lionized legends of the movement were real women and men fighting an often consistent struggle for this country to recognize the citizenship of Black people that was often violent and terrifying, but was also built upon trust and love for fellow organizers.