Q&A: C.T. Vivian’s Civil Rights Battle Started in Central Illinois

The Reverend C.T. Vivian died before finishing his memoir “It’s in the Action.” That left co-author Steve Fiffer with the job of telling the rest of the civil rights icon’s life story.

WCBU’s Tim Shelley spoke with Fiffer about how he completed the book, and some of the formative and pivotal moments of Vivian’s life.

TIM SHELLEY: Steve, the process behind how this book came together is kind of interesting, because C.T. Vivian had not written a memoir of his life before this. And you came in and helped him put this together. And I believe he actually passed away right in the middle of the writing process, correct?

STEVE FIFFER: That’s right, Tim. I was writing a book about the voting rights effort in Alabama, in 1965, Selma in particular, and it was important for me to interview Dr. Vivian for that book, because he’d been involved in a seminal moment there where Sheriff Jim Clark pushed him down the courthouse steps was caught on camera, national TV. And Andrew Yang said, without that moment, there might not have been a Voting Rights Act.

So I really wanted to talk to Dr. Vivian call them up. He was in Atlanta. We hit it off. And as we talked more, I realized that there was this amazing man, an important person in the civil rights movement. And he was 90 years old, and he’d never told his story.

So after a little back and forth, we decided to collaborate on a memoir that would be told in his voice. And we started and we got quite far. I did quite a bit of interviewing with him. But as time went by, his memory faded. And as you noted, he passed away as we were kind of towards the end of the process.

But fortunately, there’s so much that has been either recorded of him in the past, or speeches or sermons that I was able to get my hands on previous interviews, and so forth, so that I was able to complete the book even in his absence. Of course, I wish he were around, because there’s been a really a lot of nice attention and recognition of his importance. And while he got plenty of that in his lifetime, it would have been nice for him to be getting that now, as well.

TS: And I just wanted to talk a little bit about his childhood, growing up in you know, west-central Illinois, Macomb. I know his family moved from Missouri when he was really young, up to Illinois. And that was that was kind of a pivotal formative period for him. I was wondering if you two had chatted a little bit about that?

SF: Quite a bit. Yeah. They had a fire in their house in in Boonville, Missouri. His mother and grandmother, both of whom were valuers of education first, and the church second, wanted to go to a town they thought might be a little more race-friendly than Boonville. And also where he could get an education in an integrated elementary school, and where there was a university.

So Macomb, where Western Illinois University is, fit the bill. And while he did attend integrated elementary school and high school in Macomb, it was formative for him because he did experience racism. He was born in 1924 and graduated from high school in 1942.

And so when he was in high school, a teacher told them that he should have had the lead in the special junior class play, but that he couldn’t, because he was Black, and would he like to paint scenery? Or when classmates told him that they’d love to have them over for parties, or for dinner, but their parents wouldn’t let him.

It was really his first exposure to I guess what you call institutional racism through the school, and the personal racism. Not friends, because he had loads of white friends at that time, but just from the generation ahead of those friends. So it definitely was formative for him.

And there’s a great story he told me about when they first moved, where he was out in the yard and saw what he thought was a ghost. And he was a little afraid initially to approach it, but then gathered up all his courage, and decided to go for it and approach the ghost.

And it turned out to be sheets that were just hanging on the family wash, on the clothesline. But he said it taught him a lesson that you don’t back away from things that might scare you. And it actually served him very well, during the years to come when he had to confront evil in the forms of the likes of Sheriff Jim Clark, or Bull Connor in Birmingham, and you just don’t back down.

TS: To move down the road a little bit… so he went to Western Illinois University, and then he came to Peoria, Illinois to take a job at the Carver Center. And that was really the first time we hear about C.T. Vivian really engaging in nonviolent civil protests, with trying to integrate the lunch counters in Peoria back in the ’40s, which I think was kind of it was an uncommon thing at that time. You don’t really hear about things like that happening in the ’40s too much. Can you talk a little bit about that?

The opportunity for this kind of organized, nonviolent direct action was a relatively new concept in the United States. At that time, CORE, Congress of Racial Equality, was beginning to circulate ways to do such protests. And a lot of that had come from visits to India and takeaways from what Gandhi had been doing.

And so when C.T. was in Peoria in the mid ’40s, he had a an African American roommate, who was attending a predominantly white church in Peoria called West Bluff Christian Church. And the white minister there, Reverend Martin Hunter, was really the one who was responsible for trying to integrate a variety of facilities in downtown Peoria. And as C.T. said, when Ben, his roommate, said, ‘Would you like to be involved in what our churches doing?’ C.T. said, ‘that’s my stuff.’

And so this was a several month effort. And you’re right, Tim, there weren’t a lot of those going on. And then in the 40s, you don’t hear about the lunch counter sit-ins or anything like that until 10 years later, at least.

But what they were trying to do, I guess, Bishop’s Cafeteria was at Adams and Main, there. And it wasn’t allowing Black patrons to sit at the tables. So why they kind of came up with this ingenious way to shame the owners into seating Blacks.

The white people that were part of this protest, organized, nonviolent, direct action movement, they would go in, and two people would sit at a table for four, and then two Black people would come in, and the two white people at the table would invite them to join them. And that really forced the hand of the white manager to kick out the Black people. And they would have to do it in front of all the other patrons.

It was right after the war was over. And people were beginning to recognize some of the contributions that Black people have made to the country. And it took quite a few weeks, but they eventually wore down the management there and the cafeteria was was fully integrated.

TS: I know two other really kind of major pivotal things happened with C.T. while he was in Peoria. One was his call to enter the clergy. And the other one was he met his wife in Peoria. Because she to work with the Carver Center. Did he talk to you at all about either or both of those things in detail?

SF: Oh, yes. One of my favorite conversations was the conversation about his calling to become a minister. Everybody recognized his preaching skills from a very early age. And later, Dr. King would say that C.T. Vivian was the greatest preacher that ever lived. But C.T., even though he taught Sunday school, and did a little sermonizing at churches, he resisted the call to go to seminary until he literally received his calling from God.

At that time, he wasn’t working at the Carver Center anymore. He was working at the Foster & Gallagher mail order house, trying to establish a line of products for African Americans.

And he was on a warehouse floor when he said the ceiling basically just opened up and God started speaking to him. And he looked around the floor of the warehouse at all the other people there, and no one else was registering anything. So it really was his calling. And that’s what moved him to finally go to seminary.

And he ended up going. He got a scholarship to American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, and left for there in the mid ’50s. And that was just an amazing place because John Lewis, and Diane Nash, and Bernard Lafayette, were all there. I kind of compare it to the Hamilton the musical, where Hamilton observes that you had all these great people: Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, in the same place at the same time. That’s where all those people who played such important roles in the movement were.

As for meeting his wife, which I think — as important as the movement was to him, and and it was until his dying days — his wife and his family were equally important.

When Octavia came to Peoria, Blacks there at that time in the ’40s would hold welcoming parties and network amongst themselves. And he met her at at a party there, and summoned the courage to invite her out on a date. And eventually they married and had six kids. And they were married for 58 years.

And you can’t underestimate — nor did he, in our conversations — underestimate the role that women played in the civil rights movement. Even if they weren’t always on the front lines. They were the ones that were keeping things together. So that the C.T. Vivians and Martin Luther Kings and others could go out and be away and on the front lines while the family was being taken care of.

And you can imagine the fear that that Octavia or Coretta Scott King had when their their spouses were out there risking their lives. When C.T. had to decide whether or not he wanted to participate in the Freedom Rides out of Nashville in 1961, he said to his wife, because they had several young children already at that point, ‘Should I go? You know, I don’t want to leave you if something happens to me,’ and she said, ‘You have to go.’

So he always looked at his accomplishments in the movement as coming from a partnership with Octavia.

TS: You alluded to this at the beginning of our discussion, but I really just wanted to hear, what was it like to hear his first-hand account of  that pivotal moment in civil rights history with Jim Clark in Selma, Alabama, 1965, where he’s struck by the sheriff and then he gets back up, and shows that he can’t be knocked down?

SF: Right, that’s what hooked me. I’m really wanting to go forward with a memoir from him because of that original conversation when I was doing the other book. And it was really interesting. His memory of that was quite clear.

And what still came through after, my goodness, it was almost 50 years, because 1965, we were probably talking in about 2014, before the other book came out. When I said, ‘How did you get yourself together to go back up there and speak so eloquently?’

And he said, ‘I really didn’t know what I was going to say. But you cannot walk away from violence. When you’re doing nonviolent direct action, you lose if that happens. And I knew that all those other people that I brought to the courthouse that day to register with me, they’re counting on me to go forward.’

And he just, he spoke so eloquently. Yeah, I would urge your listeners to go to YouTube, and just put in “C.T. Vivian Sheriff Jim Clark.” There are numerous videos of it. And it’s really one of the most iconic moments of the movement. He has such an elegant and eloquent response to evil.

TS: And when the book comes out, what do you hope people take away from it?

SF: Well, one, I think, because I have such a fondness for him, I hope, you know, I’m the one and that they just have an appreciation for someone who played such an important role in the movement, but never sought the limelight. And he was very humble, but was at all of the major civil rights battles. Going back, as you said, Tim, even into the ’40s.

I think it’s a really good opportunity to just to follow the whole movement, from the ’40s, all the way up to when the battle came to the north, because CT moved to Chicago after after Selma, and and did things up here.

But the other thing is that I’ve really been heartened, because there have been some advance reviews from some major newspapers across the country. And several of them have said that this book can almost be a blueprint, or a manifesto, on how to deal with some of the same issues in the 21st century, that C.T. was dealing with in the in the 20th century.

So confronting voter suppression and police action through nonviolent direct action, and those techniques. And the other thing, the importance of leadership, having a unified message. So some of his philosophy that I hope comes through in the book, I hope also will be instructive for people that read the book today.

And one thing with with the previous book that I wrote about the the movement that I alluded to before, we gave a lot of copies of that book away to graduating high school seniors in Selma and Marion, Alabama, which was nearby Selma, another kind of focus point of the 1965 effort. And we found donors to give books to the graduating seniors. And I am really hoping to be able to do that again, with this book in the various cities where C.T. played played an important role, or where he cut his teeth.

So Nashville, for example, the book’s going to be given away there, and I hope it can get into the hands of young people to see how a person in a movement can really make a difference.

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