C.T. Vivian: Powerful Preacher, Civil Rights Leader - Read an excerpt from his new Memoir, "It's in the Action"

C.T. Vivian: It's in the Action

Excerpt from It's in the Action: Memories of a Nonviolent Warrior, by C.T. Vivian with Steve Fiffer

Civil rights legend C.T. Vivian, called "the greatest preacher to ever live" by Martin Luther King Jr., credited his maternal grandmother, Annie Woods Tindell, for stressing the importance of education and teaching him how to read before he was school aged. In this passage, he writes about how she introduced him to the church at the same time.

Religion was just as important to my grandmother as education. My own sense of faith was born from going with her to Church of God the Christ in Boonville. I loved the church from the earliest age. How much? One Sunday when I was five, my grandmother told me I had to stay home from services. I was so disappointed that I ran out of the house and lay in a rut in the road. I was going to let the cars run over me if I couldn’t go to church.

Why such passion? There was more life going on at God the Christ than any other place. There were all kinds of people—at least all kinds of Black people; the church was segregated like just about everything else in town. Our congregation sang loud and clear and didn’t mind letting you know. They witnessed. This was different and more engaging than anything I had experienced. I don’t think you can understand African American history without talking about religious life. In fact I don’t think you can understand any group that has been enslaved without talking about faith in God. Case in point: Moses and the Jewish people.

When you have a grandmother as religious as mine, you know you are going to be taken care of. And most folks in the African American community had our kind of faith. We believed that somehow God was going to take care of us. We had to believe—because there sure wasn’t much else in the country that said we should survive. Even though America was a democracy, we knew it wasn’t a democracy for us; it was supposed to be a Christian culture, but it wasn’t.

Ironically, the saving grace for us was that Blacks and Whites weren’t in the same church. With few exceptions, Whites didn’t want us praying with them. And for Southern Whites in particular, the church wasn’t really God’s, it was theirs. By having our own churches, we could have our faith without any people who opposed the movement telling us we had to obey them. Regardless of our particular denominations, we all became one faith. We were Christians, and it was God who would save us from the terrible conditions we endured. It’s no surprise that the leadership in the civil rights movement came out of the church.


The next passage describes C.T. Vivian's thoughts about his iconic confrontation with Sheriff Jim Clark on February 15, 1965, when Sheriff Clark punched him and knocked him down the steps of the Dallas County courthouse in Selma, Alabama, where Vivian had led a group trying to register to vote. A national film crew captured the incident, and it was broadcast on the evening news. Andrew Young later said: “No one gave C. T. any instructions to do that. It took a lot of courage to get in Jim Clark’s face. But if he had not taken that blow in Selma, we would not have had the Voting Rights Act.”

I was hurting but brushed myself off and rose quickly. I remembered the training I’d received from Jim Lawson in Nashville. We can never allow violence to defeat nonviolence. You have to resist the impulse to turn in the other direction and leave. You have to stay. Leaving is the last thing you want to do. If you turn away, what are you gonna tell the people on the line with you?

It was important for people, Black and White, to understand the meaning of what we were doing. We had a right to be there. We had a right to vote, and here was the evil force that was stopping that.

It becomes very clear that we can never allow evil to destroy the forces of righteousness, even when beaten down. I had to get back up because otherwise people would have been defeated by violence. We can never allow violence to defeat nonviolence. There can be no questions unanswered; the depth of the human consciousness must be told.

“You can arrest us. You can arrest us, Sheriff Clark.” I said. “You don’t have to beat us. “If we’re wrong, why don’t you arrest us?”

A policeman said, “Why don’t you get out of in front of the camera and go on. Go on.”

“It’s not a matter of being in front of the camera,” I said. “It’s a matter of facing your sheriff and facing your judge. We’re willing to be beaten for democracy, and you misuse democracy in this street. You beat people bloody in order that they will not have the privilege to vote. You beat me in the side and then hide your blows. We have come to register to vote.”


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