“May I speak with Dr. Vivian,” I said.
“He is traveling,” the wife of 59 years replied. “I will have him call you.”
That was four weeks ago and my last conversation with Octavia Vivian. In the twenty years, we have been neighbors I have had several hundred conversations with her husband, Rev. Dr. C. T. Vivian, many in her presence; yet seldom did she interject herself into the conversation. She would leave us to our intellectual discussions, our intellects free to roam and explore resolutions of war and peace, and full participation in the American dream. Such was the sweet spirit that was and will always be Octavia Geans Vivian. Three weeks later we gathered to give her our final goodbyes.
As it is whenever someone transitions after three scores or more years on the earth, it is time to reflect upon the impact that life force had on the world. Mrs. Vivian’s impact was a quiet yet powerful statement on a people’s yearning to be free. She did her part. She raised six children. Her husband is respected in the community. She wrote the first authorized autobiography of Coretta Scott King. She had a quiet, yet analytical mind which turned the rhetoric of the male-dominated civil rights leadership into concrete programs that could be measured by obtainable goals. She did her job well and few if any can compare with her legacy to the civil rights movement.
It was Juanita Abernathy, the wife of the late Ralph David Abernathy, who reminded a room of friends that with the passing of Mrs. Vivian she now stood as the only remaining wife of that group of young men who dared to change the world in December 1955.
Mrs. Abernathy whose husband was once singled out by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as “the best friend I have in the world today,” caused me to ponder the question of the Civil Rights wife. What manner of women were these who raised families, paid bills, shared their mates with the world and perhaps, feared each day their husbands went out the front door, they would not come back; some didn’t.
Reverend Dr. Joseph Lowery said the wives of the civil rights movement kept the leaders out of trouble. “We thought we chose you, but you all chose us. You could see that we had potential.”
Lowery said that as he approaches his centennial he does not fear death. He quipped, “I got more friends up there now than I have down here, Martin’s up there, Ralph’s up there, my mothers up there, and Octavia is up there.”
Perhaps no one can frame the civil rights period better than Ambassador Andrew Young. He hobbled to the podium and one could sense the toll walking all those miles for freedom had on his knees.
Young said he “never visited the Vivian home when there weren’t at least four to six people there. We had freedom homes and it did not matter what time of day you dropped by, there was always food. Sometimes we would bring six to eight people over. I remember one time I brought seventeen people over at 5:00 in the morning. Jean (Young) didn’t mind, but she did get mad with this one lady who wanted a ham and egg sandwich to go. Jean told her ‘I’m not running a restaurant. This is a freedom house and if you can’t sit and eat, you can’t eat.’”
The day before this gathering of friends I went and sat at the feet of my mentor. We spent a couple of hours alone in his family room, as we often do, this time talking about his life’s love, Octavia Vivian. “Since our first date, (the year this writer was born) we have never been apart,” he said. “I knew the first time I saw her I had met my wife.” Yet Miss Geans was not so sure of it. It took Dr. Vivian several weeks to convince her to go on a date with him. Now three scores later, six children later, a plethora of grandchildren later, voting rights for Negroes later, public accommodations for Negroes later, a husband’s place secured in history later; she passes the baton to a new generation of, not housewives of Atlanta, New York, or Los Angeles, but civil rights wives.
Are there any wives to pick up the baton and run this race for another century? Or perhaps the question in the 21st century ought to be, are there any men like the husband of Rosa Parks standing in the wings to give support to another Rosa?
If Coretta was Martin’s Queen; then Octavia reigns as Queen of the Civil Rights wives. Following this gathering of friends I took my own queen of thirty-two years to a late lunch. I marveled at how she has stood by me through good times and bad times, through sickness and through health, through rich times and poor times. She had my attention like never before and talked incessantly about plans to spruce up the house, the grounds, and the receptions she plans to host later in the year to share a bit of the love and comfort that has sustained us since February 14, 1979.
In many respects, she has been my Octavia Vivian. When I practiced law I borrowed a motto from “Paladin,” a popular television series of my youth. Paladin’s business card read: “Have gun will travel.”
My heroes growing up were King, Abernathy, Vivian, Young, Lowery, Lewis, Bond, and Williams so when I hung up my shingle it might as well have read “Have law license will travel.” I was always leaving home before sunrise for points in Northwest Georgia, South Georgia, Southeast Alabama and the panhandle of Florida sticking my nose in “White folks business,” getting predominately white juries to disregard the color of the defendant’s skin and focus on the law and the facts of the case. When I would return home at week’s end, oftentimes, threatened with physical harm and subtle threats to have my law license yanked, the civil rights lawyer’s wife greeted me, baby, in tow, with a smile and space to absorb the events of the week.
This is very similar to how Dr. Vivian described his life with Octavia Vivian. I am amazed at how these great men lived such ordinary lives. Dr. Vivian and his contemporaries could go forth and slay giants secure in knowing the day to day affairs of life were being taken care of by equally extraordinary personas like Octavia Vivian.
Harold Michael Harvey is an American novelist and essayist, the author of Paper puzzle and Justice in the Round. He can be contacted at haroldmichaelharvey.com