By J. K. Schmid
Special to the AFRO
C.T. Vivian “gave long answers to short questions,” his wife, Octavia, said of the preacher and civil rights leader.
“It’s in the Action: Memories of a Nonviolent Warrior” is the long answer to the question “who is C.T. Vivian?”
It is also Vivan’s answer, in a voice uniquely Vivian’s.
“It’s in the Action,” a memoir covering his earliest memories in Missouri, his civil rights work in Illinois, Tennessee, Alabama, Florida and Georgia, concluding, in a way, with the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The work is incomplete, in that Vivian passed away in July 2020. Conversation, interview and transcriptions were ongoing with co-author Steve Fiffer up until Vivian’s passing, leaving the first-hand account to end with Vivian’s recollections of the 70s.
Vivian had a reputation for reticence in sharing his personal experiences. In “It’s in the Action,” Vivian presents himself more as a life-long listener and student, as evinced by his 6,000-book library of Black authors and the Black experience. Interviewed in other composite works on the civil rights struggle, this book may be the first and final word of Vivian on Vivian.
Overall, the read is of an avuncular saw. Unsurprisingly, it reads as homily.
It makes clear, even at the cutoff, why President Barack Obama and Dr. King both referred to Vivian as “the greatest preacher to ever live.”
Altogether, comes a riveting report from the front lines.
“Out he comes with his slapjack, and he’s right down on top of me,” Vivian writes of an attack in a Parchman Prison interrogation room. “And I was just warding off blows. It caused his hand to turn, and from my angle, it was no longer an ordinary slapjack. It had edges. See, some of them are just black leather around a piece of lead. This one was embellished with figures. But it was so pretty. It was thick tan leather so that steel was inside. But it was thick and it had sharp edges, and when his hand turned, it was no longer hitting you like a slapjack would. It turned and it cut me right down the side, there.”
While able to push-in on instances of extreme violence, and discrete action, the general flow is forward and back see-sawing digression, keeping the reader aware at all times where and when Vivian is, where the Kennedys are, where is King, where is John Lewis and so on.
Alongside vivid experience also comes analysis.
“Attorney General Kennedy and the governors [Ross Barnett, Mississippi and George Wallace, Alabama] hoped this would throw cold water on future rides,” Vivian surmised of what led to his beating and later mock execution. “In other words, even though we were moving from state to state to force enforcement of existing laws prohibiting segregation with regard to interstate travel and use of facilities, Washington was willing to let states arrest us based on the patently false determination that we were engaged in intrastate travel.”
Vivian credits training and practice for his survival and physical endurance, through skills honed desegregating lunch counters in Peoria, Illinois through to the Nashville Movement.
“No less an observer than Martin Luther King Jr. called our effort ‘electrifying,’” Vivian writes. “The Nashville Movement, he said, was ‘the best organized and most disciplined in the Southland.’”
Vivian’s account is in part of the repetition, drilling and demoing it takes to resist police and state violence.
Taking a backseat to Vivian’s work was the legislative process, Vivian started organizing, protests and sit-ins in the 50s. The Civil RIghts Act wouldn’t come until ‘64.
“The civil rights movement failed, says Vivian, because it was based on certain myths about America—like the myth that legislation would lead to justice,” Fortress Press said of Vivian’s 1970 “Black Power and the American Myth.” The explosion of these myths has changed strategy and tactics, but the goal of Black equality remains.”
Similar to “Julian Bond’s Time to Teach: A History of the Southern Civil Rights Movement,” Vivian’s account concludes that Black struggle changed America, and not the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.
Vivian’s account of living, working, struggling and suffering under Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy and Johnson show that hopes and efforts to “push Biden left” are unnecessary when it comes to police reform, wage increases and healthcare. Johnson ran to where Black America chased him.
People do not choose rebellion; it is forced upon them,” Vivian said. “Revolution is always an act of self-defense… The time is gone when we can deal with anything but the most fundamental issues. The days of tokenism, accommodation and co-option are gone.”