The New York Times did the best obit-bio after the Rev. C.T. Vivian died, and they mentioned—briefly—his work with the Center for Democratic Renewal. The Atlanta Journal Constitution also did a fine obit-bio on Rev. Vivian, emphasizing his civil rights leadership in the 1960s and his most recent activities in Atlanta. Marilyn Katz did a much-needed piece for the Chicago Tribune, analyzing the impact on leaders of the movement that Rev. Vivian had in Chicago when he worked there from 1966 to 1972. There were also obit-bios in Time magazine and by the Associated Press. Below is my personal remembrance of the Rev. Vivian, with an emphasis on his leadership of the fight against the white supremacy movement.
The Rev. Cordy Tindall Vivian (hereinafter known as C.T.) died at home on July 17, about two weeks shy of his 96th birthday. I met him personally in 1983, in Atlanta at an executive committee meeting of the National Anti-Klan Network (NAKN). He was chairman of the board, and very engaged with what the organization was doing. The NAKN became the Center for Democratic Renewal (CDR) in 1985 after I was hired as its research director. I became acting executive director on August 1, 1986, and in that capacity, I got to know C.T. very well.
The Rev. C. T. Vivian was a person of courage and conviction. He was a person with ideas, and the spirit to pursue them. He understood the way “action” brought up new ideas to challenge the ones we already lived with. Unlike many antiracists, he understood the special danger of the white supremacy movement, and how it planned to overturn everything in our society. In 1992 the Rev. Vivian told me: “Much of what I know comes from the eighth-century prophets—Isiah, Micah, Amos, etc. But we must always remember that new ideas always spring from the movement, serendipity out of the movement.” And at every moment of his life after the 1960s, he wished for a new political and social movement.
The old CDR office was across the street from the Atlanta University Library, and near the restaurant that had served as a gathering place for civil rights activists during the 1960s, Pascal’s. I ate a lot of meals there—grits, sausage, and eggs over—and on Sunday morning, there was a lot of politicking going on as John Lewis faced Julian Bond in the Congressional Primaries. (Sunday being a regular workday for me when I visited Atlanta.) C.T. lived in that same neighborhood in those days. When I had breakfast meetings with C.T., however, he wanted to go to a not-nearby suburban chain restaurant, where he ate fruit plate upon fruit plate for breakfast. Indeed, whatever city I was in with C.T., he ate fruit for breakfast. With every meal in Atlanta, I gained weight and became more lethargic. C.T., on the other hand, stayed thin and spritely.
In the Fall months of 1986, C.T. went with me to New York City to visit the Funding Exchange, to help secure our organization’s funding for the future. We had a great meeting with June Makela, their executive director. C.T. expertly explained the necessity of our plans to track developments of the white supremacist movement, talked about our program to train rural leaders in the Midwest to oppose the Posse Comitatus, and he described the Christian Identity movement, which we were beginning to expose and oppose. “False religion” was a term he used at the time for the Christian right’s attempts to gain power.
The events of 1987 tried Rev. Vivian’s commitment to fighting the white supremacist movement, and he did not fail. On Saturday, January 16, the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, along with Aryan Nations members, marched in Pulaski, Tennessee. The Christian Knights paraded in Summerville, South Carolina. And in Forsyth County, Georgia, a squad of 40 members of the Southern White Knights and the Invisible Empire mobilized 400 white people to throw rocks and bottles at a small group of inter-racial marchers aimed at celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday anniversary. The inter-racial march collapsed beneath the barrage and scurried back on to their bus for safety.
Back in Atlanta, a coalition was formed with Mrs. Coretta Scott King as the leader, to “complete the march” the next Saturday. Rev. Vivian spoke at several church meetings that week to overfull houses. The next Saturday 20,000 people marched on the Forsyth County Courthouse, protected by more the 2,500 law enforcement officers. A counterdemonstration by more than 2,000 white supremacists was blocked off by the cops, but it was a sign of trouble to come.
On February 9, Oprah Winfrey brought her show to Forsyth County and gave a platform to some of the most rabid white supremacists in the area. Rev. Vivian and seven others were arrested for picketing the show, and Rev. Vivian faced felony charges of “obstructing justice.” Eventually, C.T. got these charges much reduced, and then pled guilty and walked off the scene like nothing new had happened. [But he made his point, we should never be silent when white supremacists are using their voices to spread lies and racism.]
That March, Rev. Vivian joined New Jewish Agenda chair Bria Chakofsky in Santa Cruz, California for talks on racism and anti-Semitism. At the time, the CDR was building relations with the New Jewish Agenda, and C.T.’s speech furthered that. On July 11, Rev. Vivian and Ms. Chakofsky conducted a session on Black-Jewish relations at the New Jewish Agenda national conference in Los Angeles. On the Friday evening of that conference, Rev. Vivian gave the sermon during the Shabbat service.
The first week in April, while I performed in a mediocre fashion on the Today show, Rev. Vivian appeared on KWWL-TV program in Iowa on the Aryan Nations. He acquitted himself well. The following week he went to Durham, North Carolina and gave a talk on racist violence to the Baptist Peace Fellowship conference.
That September. Rev. Vivian went to D.C. He made a presentation to the assembly at the Congregational Black Caucus Weekend. And he also talked at the annual meeting of the National Committee Against Repressive Legislation.
In 1992, I wrote a biography of Rev. Vivian for the Monitor, CDR’s newsletter. The organization had a celebration of C.T. shortly thereafter. And I have included scanned copies of the relevant pages here.
Rev. Vivian had other commitments, but month after month and year after year, he worked hard to educate others about the unique danger of the white supremacist movement. I left the Center for Democratic Renewal (CDR) in 1994 to write a book. But I stayed in touch with C.T. In 2008, CDR ran out of money, and its historic files could have wound up in the trash because everyone else had walked away. But C.T. spent his own personal funds (not a small amount) to secure the files and have them moved to a library where they are now protected.
Later, I do not remember the date, C.T.’s wife Octavia got sick. I flew to Atlanta and Dan Levitas went and I visited C.T. before he drove off alone to see his wife in nursing care.
C.T. came to Kansas City at the invitation of fast-food workers in March 2013. He gave a formal speech and then talked with the workers, all while wearing their t-shirt. (The picture is from Stand Up KC, the organization of the workers.) C.T. enjoyed visiting with these low-wage workers. But I had a surprise for him. I took him home for a brief visit, and he had a large piece of lemon meringue pie that my wife had made for him. His favorite.
I know that the Rev. C.T. Vivian, whatever the state of his health this spring, knew that there was a new anti-racist movement brewing. That is what he had been waiting for. And it appeared before his death.