Talking to C.T. Vivian is like speaking with the history of the Civil Rights Movement itself.
Vivian, 90, was active in civil rights long before the Montgomery Bus Boycott or marches in downtown Birmingham and has never quit. He will be honored at 7 p.m. Nov. 14 when the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute presents him with the Fred L. Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award at the Sheraton Birmingham Hotel Ballroom.
A veteran activist who had been involved in movements in Illinois and Nashville, Vivian worked alongside Shuttlesworth and marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Birmingham.
Born in Boonville, Mo., Vivian was 6 when his family moved to Macomb, Ill., after losing everything in the Great Depression. “The idea was to move to a non-discriminatory school,” Vivian says. Macomb was home to Western Illinois Teachers College, now Western Illinois University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree.
By 1947, he was living in Peoria, Ill., and working as director of boys and men at a community center. That’s when he got his first taste of civil rights action and use of the nonviolent methods championed by Mahatma Gandhi that later became the hallmark of King’s movement.
The first target was a cafeteria that would not serve blacks. “We used nonviolent direct action to open downtown restaurants where we could not eat until we opened everything in the city,” Vivian says. “We had a number of white college students and a couple of black college students.”
He says change came more easily in states like Illinois. “The point is that you could do what we were doing in the North but not in the South. Nobody had done it in the South,” he says. “My wife and I, having opened Peoria, were very clear on the fact that it would work. … All black Americans were looking for [change]. We didn’t like any [discrimination], North or South, but the question was how to get rid of it.”
Nonviolent direct action also helped blacks get better jobs. Vivian proudly says Caterpillar, which was the biggest employer in downstate Illinois, hired blacks only as janitors until protests opened the door for blacks to get factory jobs.
After working in Chicago and again in Peoria, Vivian later moved south. He was studying for the ministry at American Baptist College in Nashville, where he became involved in the Nashville Student Movement. The group organized sit-ins and took 4,000 people to Nashville City Hall in April 1960, where Vivian and fellow activist Diane Nash challenged the mayor, who subsequently admitted that racial discrimination was morally wrong.
Vivian has strong memories of Shuttlesworth and is especially pleased to be receiving an honor named for him. “We need more people like Fred,” he says. “Fred was extraordinary. He had courage — spiritual, physical, psychological courage. He had everything it took to be a nonviolent person. He was willing to do what was necessary to do what we needed to do.”
Shuttlesworth was one of first men to understand that a nonviolent approach would work, he says. “He was organizing people who were against racism before SCLC [the Southern Christian Leadership Conference] got started. He was helping Martin as well. He was not jealous of anybody,” he says.
Vivian says Shuttlesworth was unique in being willing to put the lives of his children on the line, taking them through lines of whites who were willing to kill to stop integration.
By 1961, Vivian was a member of the SCLC and participated in the Freedom Rides. He served on King’s executive committee in Birmingham and in other civil rights campaigns.
Vivian notes that the Civil Rights Movement was made successful by students and those who had lower positions. “The people who made the movement were on the lower end of life because they were the ones who had to use the bus. … They were the ones who had to wait. They were the ones who they closed the doors on. … They were the ones who had to get up on the buses so that white people could sit down,” he says.
“The lower down you are in social structure, the more you need a method of getting them off your back.”
Vivian says the reason “we won it all” is that every civil rights movement in Alabama was nonviolent. Bull Connor and his supporters could not defeat the protesters because all they knew was violence, and the public saw the use of violence against peaceful protestors.
“Nobody cares what happens in a dog fight, but they do care when they see people being misused and they see no reason why people should be misused,” Vivian says. “When it ended up, [Connor] was out and we were in.”
Vivian, who lives in Atlanta, sees great change in Birmingham, Alabama and the nation as a whole, but says there is still progress that needs to be made. Society needs to make sure there are young people who will follow in the footsteps of the civil rights foot soldiers and stand up against racism, he says.
And he has no doubt that racism still exists. “A great slice of this nation is not willing to completely accept black people,” he says.
Vivian sees racism in the way some sectors have reacted to Barack Obama’s presence in the White House. He thinks it is awful that many Republicans refuse to cooperate with Obama, who has won two terms. He believes a white president would find less resistance in the same situation.
“They think that is their way to defeat him, just to refuse to pass legislation,” he says.
Still, Obama has had successes, including the passage of the Affordable Care Act when previous administrations had failed to enact healthcare reform. “The economy was down before him. It has gone slowly up and up and up despite the conditions in the world. He has still made it possible for the economy to rise,” Vivian says.
Obama is the fifth president who has called on Vivian for advice. Vivian says he is one of a large number of people who offer advice to the president, who, he says, actually needs very little advice. Obama honored Vivian in 2013 by awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Vivian, who is highly respected across the racial spectrum, has received a number of other awards, including the Trumpet Award in 2006, the National Jewish Labor Award and the Martin L. King Jr. Humanitarian Award.
In 1970, Vivian wrote the book Black Power and the American Myth. He went on to work in numerous other human rights-related capacities, to speak before conferences including at the United Nations and to become a guest on national television programs.
Vivian also helped found numerous civil rights organizations, including Vision, the National Anti-Klan Network and the Center for Democratic Renewal. In 2012, he returned to serve as interim president of the SCLC.
He sees hope that today’s youths and children could be moving away from prejudice and that some churches are becoming more accepting of everyone. “We’re all just people,” he says. “Racism isn’t Christian.”
He adds, “Does God love gays? Does God love women? … Of course, God loves them. Then what’s the problem? If you are a Christian, there’s no problem to it.”
Yet, he says, one question endures. “Our concern for years has been, how do we get rid of the evil forces that are destroying us?”
Tickets are available for $120 per attendee. For more information, call (205) 328-9696, ext. 236.