AJC Bookshelf: C.T. Vivian’s posthumous memoir reveals the man behind the hero

Civil Rights icon Rev. C.T. Vivian received the Presidential Medial of Freedom in 2013. AJC File photo
Civil Rights icon Rev. C.T. Vivian received the Presidential Medial of Freedom in 2013. AJC File photo

Coauthor Steve Fiffer completes book after the civil rights leader’s death.

If you’ve never seen the 1965 film footage of the showdown between civil rights leader C.T. Vivian and Sheriff Jim Clark on the courthouse steps in Selma, Alabama, stop what you’re doing right now, find it on YouTube and watch it. It is a stunning display of dignity under extreme pressure, of passion and perseverance in the face of violent oppression, and an object lesson in the act of peaceful protest. I defy anyone to not feel moved when Vivian rises from the rain-soaked sidewalk, his face covered in blood from a blow to the nose, and continues to plea for the basic human right of allowing American citizens to register to vote.

Compared to other acts of brutality suffered by civil rights activists, including murder, the punch Vivian took was tame. But it was a defining moment in the movement in large part because it was televised.

“There happened to be a film crew that day. They captured it, and it went what we would call viral: It appeared on the news that night,” said Steve Fiffer, coauthor of Vivian’s posthumous memoir, “It’s in the Action: Memories of a Nonviolent Warrior” (NewSouth Books, $25.95), which publishes March 9. “It demonstrated not only the brutality of the white powers that be and their representatives, but also the dignity of the protestors who didn’t respond violently but just got up, brushed themselves off and said, ‘We’re here to register to vote.’”

Vivian died last year at age 95 on the same day as his friend and cohort, Rep. John Lewis. While most Atlantans are probably familiar with the significant role Vivian played in the civil rights movement ― as well as the role he continued to play in fostering opportunities for Blacks in education and business ― he was arguably among the lesser-known civil rights heroes. In the book’s preface, Fiffer says he hopes the memoir will spur other historians to delve into Vivian’s story and give him his due.

Courtesy of NewSouth Books
Courtesy of NewSouth Books

“Just as Alexander Hamilton was brought to the forefront by (author) Ron Chernow after being one of the founders who was more in the background than some of the others,” said Fiffer, “I think in the years to come, Dr. Vivian may be one of the Hamiltons out of that group, not as well known, obviously, as Dr. King or some of the other people, but a real thinker and a real doer of that period.”

Fiffer, who previously co-wrote memoirs with Southern Poverty Law Center co-founder Morris Dees and NFL star Eugene “Mercury” Morris, first met Vivian when Fiffer was researching his 2015 book “Jimmie Lee & James,” about the deaths of two civil rights activists. A few years later, the opportunity arose to work with Vivian on his own memoir when the Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient decided to donate his extensive collection of African-American literature to the Rodney Cook Sr. Park under construction in Vine City.

“He had some amazing books, first editions and other books dating back over 300 years,” said Fiffer. “Everybody thought it would be great to have his story available to people who came to the library. And I was rather shocked that, here he was already 94 years old, and he had never written an autobiography or memoir. I was just tickled to be offered the opportunity to work with him.”

Fiffer spent several months interviewing Vivian over the phone. As they progressed, Fiffer would write a chapter and send it to Vivian to edit and embellish.

“The daunting part came in trying to channel the voice of the man who Dr. King said was the greatest preacher ever to live,” said Fiffer.

Fiffer had collected 10-12 hours of tapes when Vivian became ill. Their interviews covered ground up to 1970 when Vivian died. But lucky for Fiffer, there were plenty of recordings, transcripts, sermons and news reports, including a lengthy Personal Journey that AJC reporter Ernie Suggs wrote in 2017, that Fiffer was able to use to fill in the gaps.

Asked to share the most memorable thing he gleaned from his conversations with Vivian, Fiffer didn’t hesitate.

“The thing that continues to surprise and amaze me about him and the movement is how they could continue to turn the other cheek, to not respond to the verbal and physical abuse that they were subjected to without responding in kind. One of my favorite conversations with him was his description of the workshops with James Lawson in Nashville where the students went through these workshops where people put cigarettes out on them and kicked them, and they were trained to not respond in any violent way or even an abusive way verbally,” he said.

“When I see him being pushed down the courthouse steps by Sheriff Clark and getting up and eloquently arguing for voting rights and shaming Clark and the other people there, that’s the most moving part of this all to me.”

But Vivian’s impact did not end with that one act of bravery, said Fiffer. “Post Selma in ’65, he recognizes, as does Dr. King, that the next real battleground is the North, not the South, and he comes to Chicago in ’66 and gets involved in training ministers and urban affairs.”

And he turned his attention to education. Vivian started what became known as Upward Bound, a program of the U.S. Department of Education that provides support to help students of low-income families get into and succeed in college, and Seminary Without Walls, a distance learning program ― in the ’70s, mind you ― at Shaw University, an HBCU in Raleigh, North Carolina. When he moved to Atlanta, he started Basic Diversity Inc., a consulting firm that brings diversity and inclusivity training to corporate America. Vivian never stopped working toward removing the obstacles on the road to success for Blacks.

“He was a forward thinker and a visionary,” said Fiffer. “It’s in the action. That was his motto and creed.”

Suzanne Van Atten is a book critic and contributing editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. svanatten@ajc.com

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