A Powerful Flame That Burned Brightly
Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from the book My C. T. Vivian Story: A Powerful Flame That Burned Brightly by Living Now Bronze Medal-winning author Harold Michael Harvey
I first became aware of C. T. Vivian, February 19, 1965, on the CBS Evening News. Dallas County, Alabama Sheriff Jim Clark sucker-punched him after Vivian told Sheriff Clark that he thought he was as big a racist as Hitler. In the next breath, Vivian told Clark that he was not as big a racist as Hitler. I was 14 years old, perplexed by Jim Crow, and worried that Blacks, including myself, would never be free in America. A never-dying Jim Crowism was the daunting thought of my youth.
Two days later, February 21, 1965, I would meet Malcolm X via a news break during a Boston Celtics basketball game that announced Malcolm’s death in the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem. I was bewildered, a freedom fighter whose life force I did not know had died, and another one received a punch to the jaw exercising his constitutional right of expression on a courthouse step.
Fifty-four years in the future, I still have my doubts about the free status of Blacks living in America. Vivian absorbed that punch, and with 55 years’ worth of perspective, we can say that his work has brought us closer to that promised land foretold by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. the night before King departed for eternal freedom.
Because Vivian’s torch burned brightly, I can run a little further to see what the end will bring. Watching Vivian take a punch to the chin, something struck me peculiarly about the courage of this tall, thin man. His last name commonly used as a first name by women – at least the only people I had encountered in 14 years named Vivian were women – standing on the steps of a courthouse defying the sheriff to stop Black people from registering to vote.
In the few days since his transition, many friends and distant observers have used extraordinary superlatives to describe the life of Cordy Tindall Vivian. All these superlatives are accurate and befitting for a giant among giants who walked alongside ordinary people raising their lives to colossal heights. I could come up with a superlative equal to the others in profundity, like: “powerful flame that burned brightly,” but, as Vivian would often exclaim: “What’s the point of that Doc, right,” why do that when so many catchphrases have honored Vivian’s legacy so well. “That’s the point of it,” I can hear Vivian say.
This essay will approach Vivian’s legacy like Luke, the physician, approached the honor and inheritance of Jesus. By no stretch am I suggesting Vivian is Christ incarnate. Merely, I will use the humanistic approach to recall the life and times of a noble friend to me and humankind. I will write about the everyday man – Vivian – from the lens of a 27- year neighbor. I will make use of the freestyle, running conversations I held with Vivian during this time. There are no chapters, no walls, only a recollection of chats we engaged in whether in the streets of our neighborhood, in his home, or my home, over coffee, water, and often over dinner.
I called him “Doc.” He called me “Brother Harvey.” In public, he introduced me as “Michael Harvey, my neighbor.” He wanted his friends and associates to know that he and I were neighbors. As if to say, you may know Michael Harvey, the professional, but I know him as a neighbor. His introductions always brought a smile to the corners of my lips.
Watching Vivian on television maneuver a southern sheriff into an act of violence caused me to want to know more about this man, but he seemed to fade from public view. Vivian stayed away from the camera for most of his life. The giants of the civil rights movement in full view were Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, Jr., Dr. Joseph E. Lowery, Ambassador Andrew Young, Congressperson John Lewis, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Julian Bond, Rev. Hosea Williams, and Rev. Jesse Jackson. Vivian was in the trenches with them shaping the rugged journey up to the mountain top, and over it, scaling down towards the promised land after the assassination of Dr. King.
Vivian, to use a sports analogy, is perhaps the “most underrated” freedom fighter who has ever spoken truth to power. We can even go back to 1839 when Joseph Cinque, commandeered the Amistad in the Atlantic Ocean. And, coming aground at Long Island, New York, tested for the first time the nation’s resolve to provide justice for all. Surely, Vivian belongs among the distinguished group of freedom fighters Cinque, Attucks, Delany, Tubman, Truth, Douglass, Washington, DuBois, Garvey, King, Abernathy, Lowery, Young, Lewis, Shuttlesworth, Bond, (Coretta) Scott King, Baker, Hamer, Williams, Parks, Chisholm, Jackson, X, Obama, and (Kamala) Harris.
In death, the news of his transition bumped from the news cycle in less than 24 hours. Another news story displaced news of his transition. His comrade in so many battles, John Lewis, had transitioned too.
Two days after Vivian bid us adieu, the CBS Sunday Morning program featured a full-length installment on Lewis’ days as a civil rights fighter and congressman. Vivian’s name as fate would have it, listed at the end of the program in a list of other Americans who died that week.
On that same day, an Atlanta television news station presented a documentary on the lives of Joseph Lowery, C. T. Vivian, and John Lewis, because they left us within four months of each other in the year of the 2020 pandemic. And there was Vivian, as in life, in the time of significant change and transition overshadowed by the light of other men with whom he shared a sacred history. I am sure, he chuckled that laugh of his, smiled, pointed his right index finger as he was wont to do, and was happy to see Lowery and Lewis receive the honor and praise due them.
Vivian was a doer, a thinker, a behind the scenes operative who could be counted upon to take care of business. “It’s all in the action,” he often said. He could spin a pun so tight it would discombobulate your mind trying to figure out what he had just expressed to you. Like the pun, he spun at Clark on those courthouse steps. Vivian knew Clark thought of himself as the meanest white supremacist in Alabama. Cunningly, Vivian told Clark, that in fact, he was a weak white supremacist. That no one would dare mention his name in the same breath with the disgustingly vile Hitler. That pun, spoken at that moment, was more potent than the punch thrown by Clark into Vivian’s jaw. That pun set into motion a whirlwind of events culminating at summer’s end with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Harold Michael Harvey is the Living Now 2020 Bronze Medal winner for his memoir Freaknik Lawyer: A Memoir on the Craft of Resistance. He is a Past President of the Gate City Bar Association. He is the recipient of Gate City’s R. E. Thomas Civil Rights Award, which he received for his pro bono representation of Black college students arrested during Freaknik celebrations in the mid to late 1990s. Harvey is an engaging public speaker. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.