President Barack Obama delivers the 2013 Presidential Medal of Freedom to Cordy Tindell “C.T.” Vivian, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House, Nov. 20, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)/ Public Domain.
Rev. C.T. Vivian died on July 17, 2020 at 95 years old. Rev. Vivian was born in Boonville, Missouri, and migrated as a child with his mother to Macomb, Illinois. Rev. Vivian grew up to attend Western Illinois University (WIU) in Macomb, Illinois, where he worked as the sports editor for the student newspaper. In 1987, decades after attending the university, Rev. Vivian received an honorary doctorate from WIU.
Rev. Vivian’s career as an activist began in Peoria, Illinois, where, in 1947, he participated in sit-in demonstrations to successfully integrate Barton’s Cafeteria. Soon after, he served with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther KIng, Jr. and joined Dr. King’s executive staff. In that capacity, Rev. VIvian served as the national director of affiliates for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
In the mid1960’s Rev. Vivian organized and directed efforts to re-evaluate activist networks and goals and the ideology and practice of Black Power, as well as the role of Christian faith among its participants.
In 1965, Rev. C.T. Vivian became Director of Fellowships and Internships of the Urban Training Center (UTC) for Christian Mission in Chicago. Founded with a grant from the Ford Foundation in 1963 to train African American Christian pastors and organizers—Rev. Jesse Jackson was among the first 19 men trained under Rev. Vivian’s program at the UTC in its first year—the organization considered new dimensions to protest movements in Chicago concerned with Black power, Black identity and Black unity.
By means of lectures, readings, discussions and nonviolent training exercises such as “the Plunge” where participants had to survive on their own for seven days without access to housing, food, or other resources, the organization existed to help its participants to seek ways to take power from structures which affect their lives particularly on the West and South Sides of Chicago.
In 1970, following the assassination of Dr. King in 1968, Rev. Vivian became the first of Dr. King’s staff to write a book based on his experiences in the civil rights movement. Rev. Vivian’s book was entitled
Black Power and the American Myth.
Rev. Vivian eventually became director of the Urban Theological Institute at Atlanta’s Interdenominational Theological Center, a consortium of African-American seminaries. He was also board chair of Capitol City Bank, a minority-owned bank founded in 1995 that focused on loans for underserved areas. With eight branches in metro Atlanta, Capitol City Bank closed in 2015.
Through the C.T. Vivian Leadership Institute founded in 2008, Rev. Vivian continued to do the kind of work he did in Chicago in the 1960’s which was facilitating mainly youth who were seeking discerned strategies for their material and spiritual goals. On behalf of at-risk youth and college graduates, Rev. Vivian fostered innovative leadership for their career development in the 21st century. In 2012, Rev. Vivian returned to serve as interim President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and, in 2013, President Obama awarded Rev. Vivian the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
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The United States began with a struggle for civil rights. The specific issue – taxation without representation – was merely a focus for the larger question of whether or not a dominant majority would continue to exploit a subject minority. The American colonists decided that this oppression was not tolerable.
America was born as a revolutionary nation.
The question always before the Black man was: What must I do to be free?
Freedom was conceived of in commercial terms, and indeed there was cause for this..Yet the fact is that when ordinary Black people began to move it was not an economic force that moved them. They sought dignity, not dollars; manhood, not money; pride, not prosperity.
It was Martin Luther King who removed the Black struggle from the economic realm and placed it in the moral and spiritual context.
As a nation, America had steadfastly refused to accept the humanity of its Black minority. It had perpetrated an endless series of horrors more ghastly than most of its citizens could imagine or believe
Racism began as rationalization. It began as a justification of the white man’s injustice to the Black. The greed that brought Black men into slavery was not alone enough to make the institution bearable to the white conscience.
White Americans had to become racists or John Browns…There were many more whites of John Brown’s persuasion than is commonly known. The annals of Southern history document the executions of scores of whites accused of fomenting Black revolt.
Today bigotry most often shows itself as blind indifference and willful ignorance rather than as racist activism.
When Martin Luther King emerged, he raised the issues from the pragmatic to the sublime.
During the time of slavery abolitionists were accused of violence for merely ADVOCATING an end to slavery, while the steady falling of the overseer’s lash went unquestioned as a necessary fact of life.
White America has accepted the brutality of enforced poverty, the violence of economic and social discrimination, the viciousness of personal intolerance, as social facts.
The Blacks who were brought to this country as slaves were systematically stripped of all cultural ties…Nor were they allowed to develop new institutions to replace the old. They were not permitted to read or write.
Blacks were permitted nothing by which to mark themselves as human. They had neither legal nor moral rights. They were property, not people.
Although the Constitution had been amended to declare him a citizen, the Black was neither considered to be, nor treated as, a man.
Even the Black church, which has been the closest thing in most communities to be a truly independent Black institution, has largely failed to deal with the facts of Black America. The church has taught that Blacks were human. But that they would only enjoy its privileges after death.
Blacks had to come to see themselves as masters of their own fate, masters of their secular destiny as well as their spiritual destiny.
These facts — (of economic discrimination, infant mortality rate, malnutrition) and all the others which describe the Black condition — we knew well. Our problem was to make the rest of the nation understand them.
Among other models of social action was the American Revolution itself.
When white people find filth in the streets of their neighborhood they quite properly call city hall and complain, and it is removed. But when the same whites (and warped Blacks) find filth in the ghetto streets, they call for a clean-up campaign by ghetto residents.
In 1964, the Small Business Administration reviewed its past ten years and reported that it had made seven loans to Blacks during that time –seven in ten years. This record is typical of most banks, savings and loans companies, and other financial institutions, which provide the capital that allows people to enter the commercial world.
As Gunnar Myrdal pointed out in his classic study AN AMERICAN DILEMMA, this country does not have a Negro problem, it has a white problem. Changing the white majority, their attitudes and their institutions, is basic to any solution to “racial strife.”
We saw that the failure to admit Blacks to the society had created a permanent ambivalence within the nation, an ambivalence which warped everything that the nation did. Even the simple facts of history had been so twisted that it was impossible for most Americans to understand what happened to their land or why they had arrived at the crisis they were facing.
The first permanent non-Indian settlers in what is now the United States were not whites seeking religious freedom but Blacks seeking physical freedom. These people came here as slaves with an ill-fated Spanish colonial venture. They rebelled and sought refuge with the Indians. The Spanish left and the Blacks remained. This took place more than a hundred years before the landing of the Mayflower.
Of major importance is the fact that at the time of the Revolutionary War the entire American economy was sustained by slavery. Slaves were held in every colony.
For Blacks were not the only ones oppressed by slavery. Whites were also brutalized by their inability to escape from slavery. In the South this was especially clear. A police state was created and the entire population lived in terror of a slave uprising.
Millions of Americans suffered from misplaced hatreds. The classic example is the poor white Southerner who has been pitted against Blacks by the powerful men who exploit them both.
Most of the antislavery agitation in the United States came from poor whites in the South. These people saw that slavery kept THEM in bondage by allowing planters to control all the best land and manipulate the markets to their own advantage.
John Calhoun voiced the typical slaveholder’s view when he said freedom for whites was impossible without the enslavement of Blacks.
In the Dred Scott decision of 1857…the Supreme Court explained that the phrase “the people of the United States” in the Constitution was never meant to include Blacks.
Congress…created the Freedmen’s Bureau, an agency designed to make the ex-slaves participants in the national economy. Much good work was done by the Bureau.
In the Fifteenth Amendment, the government officially forbade the denial of voting rights because of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” And having done this, the government washed its hands of the whole matter.
One reactionary Supreme Court decision interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment as having granted the privilege of national citizenship, but not necessarily state citizenship. This gave Blacks rights such as access to seaports, but left questions of education, suffrage, and employment up to the states.
During the 1890s, two to three Blacks were lynched every week – week after week, year after year.
During the Jim Crow mania, states, counties, towns, and cities vied with one another in passing repressive legislation, running all the way from the silly to the insane. This was the period which the “separate but equal” doctrine was taking shape.
The Civil Rights Act of 1965 was intended partly to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment, because no more than a tiny fraction of the Black population had ever actually been allowed to vote.
Ironically, it is America’s firm commitment to equalitarian ideals which makes the race question so intense.
What began as a Negro rights movement and became a civil rights movement would have to become a human rights movement encompassing the entire nation. It would not be enough even for the nation to change its attitudes toward Black people – we saw that the nation would have to change its attitude toward itself as well. White people as individuals and as a group would have to examine and redefine themselves, their past, and their future just as Blacks were doing.
Almost every public pronouncement concerning the condition of Blacks insisted that their situation was rapidly improving. But since Blacks were invisible to the white world, these questionable statements went unverified.
Some of our leaders recommended movement through education…Others to industrial occupations…still other leaders counseled violence. Throughout the history of America we fought many times. Before emancipation there were over 250 slave conspiracies and revolts.
To all who accepted it, nonviolence offered new power. It pitted calm courage against frantic fear. It set the action of love against the reaction of hate.
Nonviolence was a method which at once began to end the old and create the new.
The Birmingham campaign of 1963 was the first large-scale test of the new method (of nonviolence). It was titled “Project C” – C for CONFRONTATION.
When it became clear that we would not be crushed, official Birmingham accepted our demands—(1) desegregation of all public facilities, (2) hiring and upgrading of workers without discrimination, (3) the release of all jailed demonstrators, (4) the establishment of a permanent biracial committee to keep communications open between Blacks and whites.
Our movement depended on mass support; the mobilization of our people was our principal weapon.
We were continually warned about “backlash”—which is what white people do when Black people fail to “stay in their place.”
We were continually told by whites and fearful Blacks alike that we were fomenting discord, creating racial strife, mounting reaction and bigotry.
White liberals also touted the success gained through legal action. But important as court battles have been, they failed to make any basic change in the lives of most Blacks.
Ten years after the school desegregation cases of 1954, only 2.14% of the nearly 3 million Black children in Southern schools have been affected and were receiving anything like a desegregated education.
As this protest reached massive proportions it became clear that those Americans who were not coming to realize the justice of the Black demands were closing their minds more permanently and more desperately to justice.
Massive opposition was stirring. White citizens’ councils were forming throughout the South. In the Northern cities, the names were different but the motives were the same whether they came under the heading of parents’ and taxpayers’ groups, homeowners’ associations, or community school councils.
Our accomplishments often bewildered us as much as our defeats.
It was not until the riots began that we understood the extent of our failure. The message from the streets was that hundreds of years of Black appeals for justice would now give way to action.
When there is no justice for ALL, then there is no justice at all. Some may be favored, but none are safe.
Genuine integration can never become a reality until both parties can live together as equals; and that will not happen until each sees the other as human, until each holds the same values upon which the entire culture can grow.
Integration is dead. The concept and the experience, insofar as they were tried, have both failed because of the powerful racism of this society. Blacks, in response, have realized that they must develop their own distinctive culture.
Black organizations that have organized around welfare have almost universally called for the abolishment of that system.
Who then really WANTS the welfare system? Who profits by it? Who perpetuates it? It is, of course, the people who RUN the system.
It is those who ADMINISTER welfare who get the most money, not the recipients; it is the administrators who are most truly ON welfare. This point should always be remembered when they try to speak for the Black community.
The collapse of the integration model has led to many social experiments ranging from Black capitalism to the African revival. There has been a headlong search for new sources of identity.
Within Black communities, therefore, the cry is no longer for integrated education, but for community control. It means Black control of Black schools, just as whites have always controlled their schools.
In a few cases there have even been beginning attempts at coalition between bigots and Blacks in opposition to the white liberals who refuse to give up the rubric of integration.
Some segments of the Black movement are concerning themselves specifically with the creation and re-creation of Black culture. Others have found inspiration in such international movements as socialism.
The only sanity seems to lie in a new form of segregation which will hopefully, in time, bring a new demand for integration – the integration of whites into the re-created culture that the Black minority has begun to achieve.
Introductory biographical text:
Most brief, educationally distinct citations come from C.T. Vivian’s
Black Power and the American Myth.