Georgia colleges teach new course on C.T. Vivian’s civil rights legacy

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

At the beginning of the semester, Michael Hester’s students at the University of West Georgia knew the familiar names of the civil rights movement, such the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

But they were unfamiliar with the work of the Rev. C.T. Vivian, a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient from Atlanta whom King called “the greatest preacher to ever live.”



That’s changed this semester.

Eight colleges and universities — including one in Louisiana — are offering courses this fall about Vivian’s confrontational, yet nonviolent approach. Those involved in creating the curriculum hope by next year to have at least 50 schools nationwide offering their own courses on the teachings of Vivian, who died last year at the age of 95.

ExploreC.T. Vivian, civil rights hero and intellectual, dead at 95

The drive comes from longtime friends and educators who revered him. It comes as colleges offer more ethnic studies courses in response to the growing diversity among students.

Fifty-four percent of University System of Georgia students are non-white.

“The life and work of C.T. Vivian provides a useful case study and a template for action that will both educate and inspire the next generation of servant leaders,” said Beverly Tatum, a former Spelman College president.

The heightened interest in such courses, though, comes amid the ongoing national debate about critical race theory, an academic concept based on the idea that racism is a social construct impacting legal systems, public policies and more. Critics say it discriminates against white people.

First-year University of West Georgia students Tre Mason and Gabriel Kanife hadn’t heard of the term until asked about it during an interview. They say the course about Vivian, who helped lead many of the most important civil rights battles during the 1960s, is their favorite.

“It provides us a lot of good information on Black history and what we weren’t taught in our history classes,” Mason, 19, who grew up in Villa Rica.

“(Vivian) is someone you could learn from and you would want to be around,” said Kanife, 19, born in Nigeria.

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Credit: Daniel Varnado

The lessons about Vivian are being shared through his books and videos as the foundation for the curriculum. The professors can create their own syllabuses.

The classroom discussions are often uncomfortable. Several students in Seneca Vaught’s class at Kennesaw State University winced one September day as they watched a black-and white video of Jim Clark, the sheriff of Selma, Alabama, punch Vivian in the face.

“We’re willing to be beaten for democracy,” Vivian responded.

Vaught, an associate professor, asks the students for their thoughts.

“I feel like it’s almost impossible not to agree with (Vivian’s) points,” said Chris Delay, a self-described Republican.

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The classes frequently veer to current events, such as the nation’s high incarceration rates. Once, a presentation by students led to a debate on the impact of desegregation on Black businesses, how segregationists and activists used Christianity to support their positions, lynchings and voter suppression. A Black student mentioned the 1915 hanging of Leo Frank by a lynch mob in Marietta, noting it wasn’t far from the KSU campus.

Deiah Brue, 21, a fourth-year history major from East Cobb, said the classroom discussions are often lively, yet cordial. She’s learned more about racism in other countries and gained a better understanding of activists’ strategies.

“C.T. Vivian talked about it’s important to have the conversation so we can understand each other and hopefully move forward where we’re not trying to fight against each other and instead we’re working together to build a better tomorrow,” said Brue, who has encouraged friends to take the class.

Hester, who is also African American Male Initiative Program coordinator at the University of West Georgia, discussed King’s famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” during one class. He also explained the four steps King, Vivian and others used to confront segregationists: inquire, negotiate, encourage self-reflection and non-violent direct action.

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Hester mentioned the Black Lives Matter protests of recent years and discussed the similar concerns that King’s demonstrations would spark violence.

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme,” he said.

The discussions raise some questions. Do the students believe the tactics the activists used would be effective now? Would these students be willing to withstand the abuse that Vivian and others encountered?

“It’s really scary,” said Kanife. “It takes a lot of determination.”

Schools teaching courses based on the teachings of Rev. C.T. Vivian:

Clayton State University

Emory University

Kennesaw State University

Louisiana State University at Shreveport

Mercer University

Morehouse College

University of Georgia

University of West Georgia