In 2013, the summer before my senior year at Morehouse College in Atlanta, GA, I had the opportunity to spend some time with Rev. Dr. C.T. Vivian, then President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). That year I was invited to attend the 12th Annual International Nonviolence Summer Institute at the University of Rhode Island. There I became a Kingian Nonviolence Level II Trainer (I took the Level I training in an Alabama Civil Rights Tour in 2012), Dr. Vivian became a Level III Trainer (created an institute that teaches nonviolence, The Vivian Institute). Before I met him, I had only read and heard about him in my research about the American Nonviolence Movement. I saw his picture hanging in Morehouse College’s Martin Luther King, Jr. International Chapel’s Hall of Honor. Dean Lawrence Edward Carter, Sr. Ph.D. educated us on the role that he had played with Dr. King while fighting for the Voting Rights Act. He told us about the courage of nonviolent social resistance and how Dr. Vivian used it against Sheriff Clark in Selma, Alabama, to attempt to register Black people to vote.
He, just like Rep. John Lewis, Rev. Joe Lowrey, PhD., Ambassador Andrew Young, Rev. James Lawson, Ph.D., etc. was an icon that I have looked up to my entire life. The stories, books, and movies about them made these men gods in my imagination. These were Dr. King’s road dogs! They went to jail together, got beaten together, strategized together, marched together, and changed the trajectory of the entire world together! So when I first met Dr. Vivian, I had instantly become shy and speechless (hard to imagine right). I could not have been more starstruck than if I had met Michael Jordan or Michael Jackson! He had a halo over him, a natural divine glow like he had lived in the presence of God his entire life. He was so awesome to behold.
I was a nobody, so I thought. I just wanted to shake his hand and get out of the way so he could continue to carry on with his business. But that was not the case! Dr. Vivian engaged with me in conversation. As a Man of Morehouse, I was taught to represent my institution and my hometown well. So when he started to converse with me, he asked me about myself. At first, I was thinking, “he couldn’t possibly care or have heard of Peoria, IL; let me say Chicago.” But I was trained to say my Morehouse introduction, so I said, “My name is Spanky Edwards, I’m a sociology major from Peoria, IL.”
When he heard “Peoria,” he repeated it so loudly, it startled me a bit. He said, “PEORIA! I’m from Peoria!”
I said, “Dr. Vivian, you must be mistaken, I said I’m from Peoria, IL, two and a half hours south of Chicago, IL; you can’t be from Peoria, IL because I would have heard of that before, surely someone would have told me about you.”
He said, “Yes, Peoria, IL! My first real job was at Carver Center; I was a program director there. I taught Richard Pryor at Carver Center when he was a child. My daughter Jojo still lives in Peoria. She works at Proctor Center.”
I didn’t think he was lying to me, but I became convinced that he knew what he was talking about, and at that moment, we became homeboys. I was a member of the family.
From that moment on, I was his mentee, he took me under his wing and told me story after story about things in the American Nonviolence Movement. He told me about when he first got involved with the Movement. It was in Peoria; they were using nonviolent tactics to organize the desegregation of Barton’s Cafeteria in the 1940s, while Dr. King was at Morehouse. He said when he met Dr. King, about a decade later, it was like a match made in heaven. He and Dr. King clicked instantly, and they became friends in the struggle from that moment until Dr. King’s assassination in Memphis.
He told me about how he had almost drowned in St. Augustine, FL. The KKK marched them to the beach and attempted to drown them in the Atlantic Ocean. When they approached the shore, he leaned over to another minister and asked him, “We’ll, can you swim?!” He said that they both just burst out in laughter as they were on their way to a watery grave. My mouth hit the floor! I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but he was laughing, so it put me at ease. I asked him, “Doc, well, how did you survive? Obviously, you didn’t die; you’re right here.” He informed me that the national guard came and pulled them out of the water at the last minute. I was wondering why they didn’t fight back. He told me that they were committed to nonviolence. They would rather die for their beliefs than to strike their enemy to save his life. I’m from the East Bluff, and then a baby in my nonviolence journey. I told him, “I don’t think I can do that doc! We would have been fighting or something! I can’t let no klansmen just drown me without putting up some sort of struggle!” He said when you let the movement go through you, and you are trained on what to do and you believe in your training, then you can do it.” I was shocked and amazed by this revelation.
When we got back to Atlanta, I had the honor to intern with the SCLC. I got to work closely with Dr. Vivian and Dr. Bernard Lafayette. He was the epitome of a Renaissance Man. He told me about a time he won the poetry contest in his grade school English class. He quoted so much poetry that it took him two days to finish. He was one of the first advisors to the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee (SNCC), worked with the Black Stone Rangers in Chicago, founded Upward Bound, Dean of Divinity School at Shaw University, was a Freedom Rider, author, did anti-Klan and anti-racism workshops, and was a famed preacher and organizer. What was also impressive was that Dr. Vivian was the president of a Black-owned bank in Atlanta, Capital City Bank & Trust Co. that he founded in 1994. I asked him how a preacher could be the president of a bank. He said, “Well, when you’re on the board, and the opportunity shows up, you can be the president,” in a jovial way.
He told me he liked to read and learn new things all the time. I watched him read at least five newspapers every day to stay up on current events and the stock market. Watching him work every day was exhilarating. He would take calls from journalists from all over the world asking him about Dr. King and the American Nonviolence Movement, while also running the SCLC and traveling to various engagements. That year was the 50th memorial of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. I organized the Atlanta Nonviolent Leadership Conference at Morehouse, where Dr. Vivain & Dr. Lafayett came to teach Kingian Nonviolence.
He told me about a book that his mother had given him; it was called the “Men of Mark.” It was a book of Black men, post-Emancipation Proclamation, who had done amazing things directly after the Civil War. He said that “Black people didn’t sit around twiddling their thumbs after slavery ended! They had a plan. They had a list of demands to be self-sufficient. They demanded Freedom! Freedom to them meant the right to vote, own and work their land, education, desegregation, housing, and healthcare. Immediately after slavery had ended, Black people became high ranking military officers, presidents of colleges, congressmen, business owners, police officers, mayors, state representatives, etc. He said, Obama shouldn’t have been the first Black president, Black people have been both willing and able to be president for about one hundred years. It was not that Black people were not ready to be president; it was because of American racism and hatred that prevented them from being elected. He told me to read his book, “Black Power and the American Myth,” it also dispelled the common lies told about the American Nonviolence Movement.
This conversation was my Northern Star when I ran for Congress. My ideas of an economic, educational, and an environmental reconstruction were based on what I learned from him. The Peoria Peace & Nonviolence Leadership Institute was created to emulate what I experienced in the summer of 2013. Dr. Vivan was sweet and gentle. He had the kindest demeanor out of any man that I had ever met but was stern. I felt loved and like my opinion mattered. He treated me like a great-grandson who he had known since birth. The only other time I had felt this way was when I met Mrs. Anne Jo Gordon for the first time when I was volunteering for Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth’s first campaign back in 2007.
The summer I spent with The Rev. Cordy Tindell Vivian was the best summer in my adult life. I credit my organizing ability, tenacity for justice, and passion for nonviolence training to this transformational summer. Dr. Vivian, I will honor your legacy here in Peoria by leading the following:
- Raising funds to have a statue of him built by Preston Jackson
- Rename a street after him; i.e. “Rev. CT Vivian Street”
- Name a conference room at Carver after him
- Have his birthday, July 30 become a state holiday; Rev. CT Vivian Day
- Name a school after him; i.e., Rev. CT Vivian, Ph.D. Middle School.