Dr. Jessica Johnson: A lesson from Vivian: Is what we’re doing serving others?

As I sat down to read the recently released memoir “It’s in the Action, Memories of a Nonviolent Warrior,” which chronicles the work of Rev. C.T. Vivian in the civil rights movement, I thought about how I described him as a “living oracle of history” when I wrote a tribute on his passing last year at age 95.

Fellow civil rights activist and minister Andrew Young has a similar description in the foreword he wrote for Vivian’s book, stating, “C.T. Vivian loved words — spoken or written … And he could quote our great poets — from Phillis Wheatley to Langston Hughes — and thinkers — from DuBois to Ellison — as readily as he could quote Scripture.” That’s the enduring impression that has never left me from being in the presence of Vivian, a man who was the essence of humbleness yet a luminary in the fight for social justice for over six decades.

Young expressed some regret that Vivian waited until he was in his 90s to begin writing about his life’s greatest accomplishments, but for someone as modest as Vivian was, it doesn’t surprise me. He is not as well known among the general public as other famous civil rights “warriors,” such as John Lewis, Medgar Evers and Diane Nash, even though he marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, Alabama, and served as the national director of affiliates for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Vivian had been organizing sit-ins as early as 1947 and participated in the Freedom Rides during the 1960s. One of the most famous photos of Vivian included in his memoir is his mug shot during his arrest for leading a Jackson, Mississippi Freedom Ride in 1961. Dressed in his clergy attire with the traditional white-collar neckband, Vivian displayed a pensive smile, probably thinking about his wife and children or a worse-case scenario that could have happened. But thankfully, he did not die that day.

The words that Vivian wrote at the end of his prologue titled “When We Came Out of Slavery” summarizes what I have always maintained was the core of the civil rights movement: faith in Christ and genuine love for one’s fellow man. In describing a ring that he designed with a family crest, Vivian explained that one would see a cross if they looked closely enough. He then stated that it was the cross that “undergirded us in slavery” and “undergirded us in peonage and coming out of it.”

The cross was basically the foundation for the nonviolent movement that Vivian, Lewis, King, Young and so many other tireless heroes and heroines dedicated their lives to as they fought against segregation and racial discrimination. They had the audacity to love their enemies in the face of callous hatred and heartless violence. It was this love through Christ that enabled Vivian, and Jim Lawson, also an ordained minister, to respond with “compassion” when “confrontation arose” as they prepared young, black college students in Nashville, Tennessee for sit-ins to desegregate the downtown lunch counters of Woolworth’s, S. H. Kress, and McClellan’s. It was also moving to read how Vivian resisted harboring animosity in his heart as he shared very difficult personal life experiences.

He tells of how his oldest son, Cordy Tindell Vivian, Jr., was born two months early in 1955 in Nashville and was denied being placed in an incubator because the doctors said they did not have one for black babies. Cordy was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and died at age 54 in 2010. Vivian also wrote about how it was disheartening for black parents in Nashville to have to “drag” their children to a “black-run establishment on the edge of town” because they were denied service at the city’s restaurants. He recalled that the worst question black parents would have to answer from their children was “[w]hy can’t I eat there?”

Throughout his memoir, it is evident how grace followed Vivian in times of extreme hardship, and hopefully his story will inspire the next generation of social justice activists to advocate for equality in the spirit of love that he did. In addition to his faith, I believe that Vivian triumphed because he was always thinking about the welfare of the people he was fighting for. One of the many lessons he taught that is still valuable today is to ask ourselves if what we are doing is serving others. Vivian’s service was truly the hallmark of his life.

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Dr. Jessica Johnson

Guest Column

Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at The Ohio State University-Lima. Email her at [email protected] @JjSmojc