The Reverend Cordy "C.T." Vivian: Civil Rights Activist, Pastor, Man of Moral Courage

C.T. Vivian

In his award-winning book, The Road to Character (2015), David Brooks discusses the importance of living in such a way as to leave a legacy after one's time on this earth ends. This award-winning author and journalist highlights the concept of "eulogy virtues" vs. "resume virtues." Too often, awards, money, educational achievements, fame, and popularity are used to measure the success of a person's life; these are "resume virtues." But Brooks declares the importance of "eulogy virtues."

These are the intangible characteristics such as empathy, honor, sacrifice, nobility, and generosity that people should strive to make expressly known from the moment they enter this world to the time of their departure. "Eulogy virtues" are what women and men will be remembered and celebrated for after they take their last breath. Not erected buildings. Not erratic slogans. But words and actions that made the lives of others better.

This is the case for Civil Rights and faith leader, Reverend Cordy "C.T." Vivian. He transitioned on Friday, July 17, 2020; he was 95 years young. And, by all measurements - including David Brooks' eulogy virtues - C.T. Vivian made the world and the lives of others better.

Vivian marched with Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and became a prophetic witness of the suffering and injustice of African Americans in the segregated South. He participated in the Freedom Rides (advocating to integrate buses across the South), and was a strong proponent of the teachings of nonviolence and the ethics of love and justice modeled both in the life of King and most notably by a Jewish Rabbi from Galilee who lived in the early first century.

A seminary trained minister of the gospel, Vivian founded the Nashville Christian Leadership Conference (an organization birthed out of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference). He also created a college readiness program supporting young students who were punished and penalized for being outspoken on matters of justice and equality. This program later became Upward Bound, launched by the Department of Education in August 1965. Upward Bound was formulated to address the low graduation and retention rates of high school and college students in urban communities. I was a product of that program, and benefit to this day in ways that are simply immeasurable.In 2013, President Barack H. Obama awarded Vivian the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Perhaps the most vivid and historically impactful action of C.T. Vivian's life, however, was his nonviolent direct confrontation with, and plea to, a county sheriff from Alabama named Jim Clark. At times, Clark wore a sidearm revolver on his right hip, a metal capped helmet, and dark shades; each served as a symbol of his resistance to the advancement of freedom and equality. As Vivian attempted to lead a group to register to vote in Selma, Alabama, Clark stood at the county courthouse and responded by beating the civil rights activist until blood poured down his face.

Clark struck Vivian so hard that he fractured his own hand while enacting violence against the man Martin Luther King Jr. once called "the greatest preacher in America." The entire nation watched this episode play out on television. The dark and disturbing beating of C.T. Vivian became the turning point for the Civil Rights Movement, and many historians argue it was the impetus for the famous march on the Edmund G. Pettus Bridge. On March 7, 1965, marchers stood shoulder-to-shoulder as they were bruised and beaten; one of the most notable people victimized on what became known as "Bloody Sunday" was a young student activist named John Robert Lewis. This young protege of King came within inches of death, having his skull fractured by billy-club wielding state troopers.

The events that unfolded on the bridge sent shock waves throughout the nation. This momentum became moral fuel to encourage the work of what King termed his "coalition of conscience" citizens from all walks of life committed to advancing the cause of justice, equality, and freedom on behalf of the disenfranchised, the disrespected, and the despised. King noted that at the time, there were more African Americans in jail cells with him than on the voting rolls in Selma. King was determined to end that truth.

Later that summer, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, which was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on August 6, 1965. That legislation was, however, paid for in blood, as five people died that year in the collective attempt to advance the cause of voting rights.

Years later, as a teenager growing up in Compton, I remember watching that video of Vivian being beaten by Sheriff Clark, and later reading about such events in my studies of MLK Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. I remember Vivian's words, compassion, and pleas to the humanity of the Selma sheriff. Vivian told Clark, "you can turn your back on me, but you cannot turn your back on justice." Vivian's words, actions, and demeanor mirrored that of a modern-day Stephen (Acts 7:52-8:4), one of the early church martyrs who met his death while standing up for the "good news," of the gospel.

The black and white television footage of that encounter from 1965 is accessible for the world to see today; it serves as an abject reminder of the complex and dark history that government systems and policies as well as some members of law enforcement have played in our nation's inhumane treatment of African Americans. We have made progress, but we still have work to do.

Jim Clark died on June 4, 2007; he was feeble, alone, and remained unapologetic. Clark's last public comments on record regarding the events of 1965 and the confrontation with Vivian were that he did what was right, and if he had a chance to do it again, he'd change nothing. For years afterward, Clark wore a button inscribed with the word, "Never." It served as a reminder to foes and sympathizers alike that he remained neither fazed nor unmoved by events that transpired to move our nation forward. He touted what he did, yet there was no mention of the aforementioned intangibles of character, or how he made the lives of others better.

The word eulogy literally means "to speak well of." At a time when our nation suffers from a dearth of leadership at the highest levels, C.T. Vivian's life demonstrates how one can leave a legacy of bettering the lives of others. He will be a man spoken well of, not just today or at political rallies or during election cycles, but for all of human history.

This happens not by defending the indefensible or lacking empathy, not by embracing the rhetoric of hate speech or violence or the symbols that historically represent racist and treasonous acts (Confederate Flags and Monuments), but when we commit to live our lives in the balance of receiving grace while offering it to others, and when we advance a message of faith, hope, and love that moves beyond the margins of bitterness, bluster, and bravado. The era of segregation called for leaders to exhibit nothing short of what scholar Harvey Cox calls "moral courage," in confronting division and injustice. Vivian modeled moral courage throughout his life and continues to do so now, as he's celebrated and remembered in death. Well done, thou good and faithful servant: The Right Reverend Cordy "C.T." Vivian.


About Institute for Global Engagement

The Institute for Global Engagement is a Christian, non-sectarian think tank dedicated to addressing issues in the public square with biblical distinctiveness. The mission of the IGE is to be a moral and spiritual catalyst for renewal in our culture. Founded in 2015, the IGE values the biblical narrative, thoughtful consideration, and gracious civility.

Written by Dr. Marcus "Goodie" Goodloe

Marcus “Goodie” Goodloe, Ph.D. is Senior Fellow for Ethics and Justice Institute for Global Engagement at Dallas Baptist University.

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