Standing on the steps of a courthouse, the Rev. Cordy Tindell “C.T.” Vivian pleaded for the right of every person to vote with “verbal jabs” when a sheriff literally jabbed him, beating and knocking him to the ground.
The Baptist minister and director of national affiliates for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) had led a group of people to register to vote in Selma, Alabama, on February 16, 1965.
In his posthumous memoir, “It’s in the Action: Memories of a Nonviolent Warrior,” the civil rights leader recalled the infamous showdown with the sheriff that blocked the group.
“I had to get back up because otherwise people would have been defeated by violence. We can never allow violence to defeat nonviolence,” he wrote in the memoir, which comes out March 9 and is co-authored by Steve Fiffer.
The confrontation between Vivian and Sheriff Jim Clark has been described by historians as one of the most defining moments of the 1960s civil rights movement, in part because it was televised.
Vivian died last summer at the age of 95 as Americans were forced to grapple with the emotional consequences of seeing the deaths of George Floyd and other Black people at the hands of police. The images of protesters being tear gassed and shot with rubber bullets were reminders that the wounds of racial injustice had never really healed.
Before his passing, Vivian reflected on his message of nonviolence for the memoir and how it’s not a surprise that the struggle for voting rights and “all of the human rights systematically denied” continues decades after he was punched in 1965.
Reaching the conscience of people
White America consistently says that it values the Constitution and the Bible, Al Vivian, the son of the civil rights leader, told CNN. And his father would say that “every argument we ever used lined up with those two documents.”
“You find out what people say they value, you hold them accountable to that,” Al Vivian said his father explained. “You prove to them that either they’re not what they really say they are, they don’t really value that or you force them to prove that they do.”
Vivian only began writing the book in recent years, which soon proved challenging.
Fiffer, the memoir’s co-author, said Vivian was nearly 94 years old when they began collaborating. They spoke for hours about Vivian’s life but as the months passed, some of his memories began fading.
Yet, his life experiences remained lessons in what it means to be driven by a purpose and a commitment to ensuring Black Americans were guaranteed the same basic human rights as White Americans.
“It does not matter whether you are beaten; that’s a secondary matter. The only important thing is that you reach the conscience of those who are with you and of anyone watching – both the so-called enemy, and those who are preparing the battle, and anyone else who may be watching,” Vivian wrote.
Al Vivian said many of his father’s lessons could help young activists, especially now as the nation remains deeply divided. His father was an advocate for nonviolent action, education and a man of faith. Those views are infused into all aspects of the book.
The memoir chronicles Vivian’s childhood in segregated Boonville, Missouri, and western Illinois in the mid-1920s and 1930s; how he experienced racism in high school and college; and how activism took him across multiple cities in the United States.
“I’ve been asked many times when I first realized that our blackness put us in a different position in the country. I always answer, ‘When I was born!’ It’s impossible not to know,” Vivian wrote.
His first nonviolent protest took place many years before the civil rights movement. He held demonstrations and lunch-counter sit-ins in Peoria, Illinois, where downtown restaurants wouldn’t serve Black people. After months of action, organizers successfully guaranteed them service, Vivian wrote.
He also dedicated pages of his memoir to his participation in the Freedom Rides, his work in Selma as director of national affiliates for Martin Luther King Jr.’s SCLC and his efforts to desegregate St. Augustine, Florida, in 1964 while facing arrests and brutal beatings.
‘He wasn’t trying to take the limelight’
“Dad always tried to stay in the background, it was never about him,” Al Vivian said. “He wasn’t trying to take the limelight.”
Throughout, Vivian shined a light onto the work that many others did to advance the movement, including civil rights leaders Diane Nash and the late Rep. John Lewis.
Vivian passed away before they could finish the manuscript or discuss his life after the mid-1970s in detail. Fiffer said he wished they could have talked more about the creation of the National Anti-Klan Network, an anti-racism organization that focused on monitoring the Ku Klux Klan. Vivian’s efforts to foster workplace race relations and his travels outside the United States.
The writer said he used some of Vivian’s previous interviews and news stories to supplement parts of the book and add highlights from that time period.
“While we all may wish this memoir had been written years ago, we trust the pages that follow present a picture of the character and deeds of one of the true heroes of American history,” Fiffer wrote in the book.
Although the memoir is not exhaustive, Fiffer hopes it can inspire others to learn and maybe even write more about the late civil rights organizer.