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Education

Dr. C. T. Vivian Honored During Anniversary Week

Gwendolyn Glenn
/
WYPR

During the 50th anniversary celebrations of the 1963 March on Washington, speakers often told of those who worked hard, but didn’t get the recognition they deserved. The Rev. Al Sharpton, an organizer of the August 24 celebration on the National Mall, said one of those was the Rev. Dr. C.T. Vivian, a top lieutenant of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was in town for the anniversary. “But now, he’s a winner of the Medal of Freedom from the first African-American president in the United Sates,” Sharpton said.

Dr. Vivian’s name does not spark immediate recognition with many until you mention a civil rights leader being knocked down courthouse steps as he tried to register voters in Selma, Alabama in 1965. “You can’t keep anyone in the United States from voting without hurting the rights of all other citizens,” he told police as they barred him and about 30 others from entering the courthouse that day. Moments later Selma Sheriff Jim Clark hit Vivian so hard he injured his hand. And Vivian tumbled down the steps.

That was one of  Vivian’s many confrontations with police that led to his arrest during the civil rights fights of  the turbulent 1960s. Then, he was a national director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference who helped lead demonstrations around the country alongside his close friend, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Now, the 89-year-old Vivian runs his own leadership institute in Atlanta and is SCLC’s president.

At the celebration, he challenged churches, fraternities, sororities and labor unions, to tackle issues raised at the march, such as the country’s high dropout rate. “We can’t be a people allowing 45 percent of our young people to drop out of school in a world where it’s taken for granted that you have to have a college degree,” Vivian told the cheering crowd.

Later in the week, after a meeting with the president, he reflected on the importance of consistent voter registration drives to help realize King’s dream of racial, economic and political equality. “Every one of us should carry our voter registration card with us, right, and then say to another black person walking down the street, I don’t care if they’re having dinner, or visiting each other or at work, say, where’s your, here’s mine and why don’t you have it?” he said.

Vivian also called on the older generation to tell the stories of their struggles and show younger people how today’s issues are connected to them, in the same way the shooting of Florida teen Trayvon Martin is. “When he was murdered, they came from everywhere. Why? Because they began to realize that could happen to me,” he said. Vivian sharply criticized the stand your ground laws that figured in the Martin case and that a Maryland Delegate is pushing. These kinds of laws, they’re not made to help people. They’re made to help people kill people and get by with it,” Vivian said.

The SCLC presented Vivian with two awards for his work with the organization during a banquet Aug. 28 in Washington.  SCLC’s CEO, Dr. Charles Steel, credited Vivian with breathing new life into the organization when he agreed to become the group’s president last year. “If not for your stepping forth as president, I don’t think we’d be here,” Steel said. “We can’t thank you enough, so we’ll keep giving you awards.”

But Vivian says he may step down as SCLC president soon to do more hands-on, active organizing, using some strategies of the 1960s. “We got to show that we’re nonviolent in all that we do,” he said. “This is how we won before. The genius of Martin was he won with a strategy and that strategy was non-violent direct action. It is in the action we solve problems for people and that’s what I love to do.”