An Evening with Rev. Dr. C.T. Vivian

“Leadership is found in the action to defeat that which would defeat you… You are made by the struggles you choose.”

What would possess an 88-year-old man to travel several hours, after a lengthy layover, to talk to a crowd about his life, I wondered, as I waited for the arrival of Rev. Dr. C.T. Vivian. I wondered if I would still be a leader into my eighties, or if people would show up to hear my words. Rev. Dr. C.T. Vivian is a Civil Rights icon, one of the last living leaders to connect us with an era of struggle known only to most students through history books and video clips. He came to Coatesville Area High School on Friday, February 22, to speak about his involvement in the Civil Rights movement and to share his perspective on America today. The format was an informal question-and-answer and Vivian was able to speak thematically about his experiences without having to retell chronological events of his life.

I was surprised how little he talked about himself or his connection with Dr. King, whom he called Martin. (I am ashamed to think Dr. Vivian would be so self-centered to talk mainly about himself…). He did speak very much about how the Civil Rights movement reflects society today.

Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
let our rejoicing rise,
high as the list’ning skies, let it resound loud as the rolling sea

sing a song full of faith that the dark past has tought us,
sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
let us march on till victory is won.

Dr. Vivian was asked numerous questions about today’s society and how to fight for what is right. How would one know when to stand up for injustice? One of his most poignant answers of the night, for me, came when he was asked about homosexuality. As a Christian minister, I was not sure how he would approach the answer, but his response was so remarkable because of its brevity and applicability to ANY situation. “Are they human? Then what’s the problem?” All civil rights should be approached this way. All interactions with others should be approached this way. Are they human? Then what’s the problem? Why wouldn’t you treat them as human? Why wouldn’t you fight for their equality. Vivian even made a more pronounced statement, which I cannot quote directly, but it went something like: Jesus did not say love everyone, except the homosexuals. Jesus said love everyone. No exception. Love will save us. To love through hate is difficult, but it will save you.

“What you are about is what you are born for.” Vivian was also asked in multiple questions how he was able to persist in his fight, in the face of fear and death. His answer always resounded back to, it was what you are born for. In St. Augustine, Florida, during a wade-in to open public beaches to African Americans, Dr. Vivian came his closest to death. As the Civil Rights leaders were walking toward the water, Vivian’s friend asked him if he could swim. Vivian said yes, though it was not exactly true. In his mind he knew he had no chance swimming in an ocean. He kept going. It was what he was born for. In the water, a KKK protester pinned Vivian beneath the surf, head in the wet sand below. He admitted he thought he would die in the water, but he was calm. This was what he was born for. Before long, a National Guard soldier pulled the Klansman off of Vivian. On a more broad scale, fighting for individuals’ rights is what we are all born for. We need to continue to fight for humanity. “We’re free, not for ourselves, but for everybody.” In applying this concept to guns in America, Vivian said, “We have some of the best preachers in the world [in American cities], but we aren’t dealing with it [gun violence].” Saving humanity, not for ourselves but for others, is what we are born for. What are we doing about it?

Two small children asked Dr. Vivian questions and his demeanor changed when they approached the microphones. First, an eleven-year-old girl asked how the whole Underground Railroad happened. Who started it? Vivian smiled and laughed, saying in brief individuals who care started such actions. He admitted his answer wasn’t complete. No one knows why individuals, in the face of overwhelming odds, step up to action. Vivian’s response to this young girl concluded with this: “Don’t stop asking those questions!

A boy, slightly order and a bit more poised (I was sitting right behind him during the presentation) asked how communities heal, back then and now. AN AMAZING QUESTION. Vivian’s response was “It’s so easy to go to church and think that’s enough. We must all work at it.”

“Don’t stop with one good thing. See how many good things you can do.” Last, many of Vivian’s remarks were meant for the next generation of leaders. We must act to preserve and protect all humanity, no questions asked. We must never act on behalf of ourselves. Act for the redemption of humanity. Train for non-violent, direct action. Vivian said, about the Civil Rights movement: “To fight physically meant physical destruction. To not fight meant spiritual destruction.” We must prepare ourselves for a fight, a fight to save humanity. Without non-violent direct action, humanity is doomed. We must stand for those who are oppressed.

The evening concluded with about 50 community leaders on the stage, of all different ages and colors, who joined hands and sang “This Little Light of Mine,” a moving spiritual hymn popular during the Civil Rights Movement. I counted myself very lucky to witness and participate in a bridge from the Civil Rights era to present day. We are now all charged with continuing that journey, with our light, to secure equality for all humanity for all time.

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4 thoughts on “An Evening with Rev. Dr. C.T. Vivian

  1. civilrightsagenda February 24, 2013 / 2:00 pm

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful insight of Rev. C.T. Vivian’s visit to the Coatesville Area High School on Friday! I planned on attending myself, but was not able due to car troubles (of all days!) I was saddened at the very thought that I missed him, but your post truly made my day. I am sharing this as we speak! God Bless.

    • Justin Staub, Ed.D. February 24, 2013 / 5:19 pm

      I am glad my reflections were valuable. I only hope I accurately reported Rev. Vivian’s messages with everyone. Thanks for your comments.

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