Ten years ago, the Rev. C.T. Vivian gave a presentation at Western Illinois University, where I worked, and said, “I never would have been who I was if not for Macomb, Illinois.”
In a conversation two years later, I asked him about that comment. He smiled and said, “You can come from almost anywhere and do almost anything if your heart and soul are in it, even make things a little better.”
After decades of making things better, the Civil Rights pioneer died July 17 at his Atlanta home at the age of 95.
Born Cordy Tindell Vivian in Boonville, Mo., Vivian and his moved to Macomb, when he was 6. After graduating from Macomb High School in 1942, Vivian studied at WIU, where he also wrote sports for the student newspaper. In 1945, he moved to Peoria, first working at Carver Community Center and later at the Foster & Gallagher mail-order company. He also became more involved in the church and in local efforts to desegregate restaurants (his first protest was an integrated demonstration at Barton’s Cafeteria, which had refused service to African Americans).
Although now recalled for his presence and leadership in the Civil Rights movement from Birmingham to Selma and far beyond the South – from sit-ins, boycotts and marches to arrests, incarcerations and assaults –the Baptist minister was a champion of nonviolence. Living in Nashville in 1959, Vivian met the Rev. James Lawson, who was teaching principles of nonviolent direct action to activists with the Nashville Student Movement including John Lewis, who’d become head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and eventually a Congressman.
“Nonviolence is the only honorable way of dealing with social change, because if we are wrong, nobody gets hurt but us,” Vivian told Civil Rights activists, reported by Taylor Branch in his 2006 book At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68.
“And if we are right, more people will participate in determining their own destinies than ever before,” Vivian added.
Vivian, Lawson, Lewis and others participated in 1960’s three-month campaign to desegregate Nashville lunch counters, and the effort succeeded.
Other successes came, but there were prices to pay. Attacks by mobs and police using billy clubs, fire hoses and dogs all helped change the nation enough to secure passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act a year later. Other moments in Vivian’s momentous life:
* 1953: The Peoria chapter of the NAACP makes him an officer.
* 1955: With support from Mount Zion Baptist Church and his employer Helen Gallagher, he starts at American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville.
* 1961: Vivian is beaten as part of the Freedom Ride to Mississippi organized by CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality).
* 1963: Vivian helps organize Tennessee’s delegation to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and he joins King’s staff.
* 1964: He’s one of many Black protestors at a St. Augustine, Fla., beach beaten by gangs of whites, who almost drown Vivian.
* 1965: With a Southern Christian Leadership Conference voter-registration drive in Selma, where more than 1,000 Black citizens had been prohibited from registering, Vivian asks Sheriff Jim Clark to let dozens of African Americans to come out of the heat into the courthouse, and the 220-pound Clark punches the slender organizer and has Vivian arrested.
* 1966: Vivian moves to Chicago, where he launches the Coalition for United Community Action, a group of dozens of organizations.
* 1970: The first of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s colleagues to write a book about the movement, Vivian releases Black Power and the American Myth (one of many other writings, including the preface to Felix Armfield’s Black Life in West Central Illinois).
* 1977-78: He establishes Black Action Strategies in Atlanta and helps found the National Anti-Klan Network, which evolves into the Center for Democratic Renewal.
* 1987: Vivian receives an honorary doctorate from WIU.
* 2013: President Obama awards Vivian the country’s top civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Vivian in 1999 told Peoria Journal Star reporter Pam Adams that his advocacy for the poor and marginalized stemmed from the New Testament’s Sermon on the Mount.
“It’s the most profound, the most deeply spiritual – not just religious, but spiritual – piece of material in one hump in all humanity,” he said. “It’s the higher mathematics of spiritual life.”
Heart and soul.