C.T. Vivian entered Macomb High School in 1938. "I never thought of using the term 'institutional racism' to describe the place," he wrote in his posthumous memoir. "This wasn't because such racism didn't exist. Rather, I just didn't know there was a term to describe what I experienced."
The book – titled, It's in the Action: Memories of a Nonviolent Warrior, and released in March 2021 – covers Vivian's experiences in Illinois. Vivian was born in 1924. He died at age 95 on July 17 of last year, the same day as his close friend and fellow civil rights leader, Congressman John Lewis.
Vivian's family moved to Macomb from Missouri when he was young. At the high school, he was a talented young actor. He was good enough to play a lead role in the school play, according to a faculty adviser – that was if it hadn't been for his being Black. "One's talents weren't as important as the color of one's skin," he realized, as he described in the book.
Vivian would go on to attend Western Illinois University in Macomb. "I began as a sociology major but switched to English because of racism in the social sciences department. The move made no difference," he wrote. Vivian would drop out of college, crediting the poetry of Walt Whitman as inspiration to travel the country instead. Vivian wanted to see the U.S. before joining the Army, which he once thought to be inevitable, but never happened. "After visiting New York and Chicago, I stormed the beaches of the largest city on – are you ready? – the Illinois River. Peoria, Illinois," he wrote.
In Peoria, in the 1940s, Vivian took a job at a community center. He had wanted to pursue journalism, but it was an "unwritten rule" that Black people need not apply to the Peoria Journal Star in those days, he wrote. Vivian would go on to lead efforts to desegregate Peoria. He also met his wife and the "love of his life," Octavia, there. And it was in Peoria that he felt the divine inspiration to become a preacher.
Steve Fiffer of Evanston co-authored Vivian's memoir, which draws from past interviews as well as those conducted specifically for the book. Fiffer told Illinois Times there's no doubt that Vivian's time in Illinois was formative in his path to becoming a key member of the civil rights movement. Fiffer said it was in grade school in Macomb that Vivian began to develop his ideology about nonviolent approaches. "You could see the wheels were turning," said Fiffer. "He was kind of a fighter when he was in grade school," but came to the conclusion disagreement could be solved without bullying or violence.
When asked where he was from, Vivian would tell people Illinois. People would often assume he meant Chicago, said Fiffer, but Vivian would correct them and say he was from western Illinois. "He had such fond memories of growing up in Macomb – even though he experienced racism that was typical for the times there."
Martin Luther King Jr. once called Vivian "the greatest preacher to ever live." King considered Vivian a close adviser, and tapped him to be a key strategist during the school desegregation efforts in Birmingham, Alabama. In 2013, Vivian earned a Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama, who said that Vivian was instrumental in pushing the nation "closer to our founding ideals."
Vivian wrote the book Black Power and the American Myth, published in 1970. But it wasn't until late in life that he finally agreed to work on a memoir. Fiffer credits that in part to Vivan's humility. Vivian was a man of faith and family. It was his daughter, Denise Morse, who convinced her father to work on the memoir with Fiffer.
"He didn't talk about himself, he didn't write about himself, he just wasn't interested in himself," Morse said about her father. Some of his peers went into politics, and thus stayed more in the limelight than her father, said Morse. "That was fine with him," she said. "He wanted change. His biggest thing was making change."
Morse said her father was greatly influenced by the women in his life. "Daddy respected everyone. But he especially respected women. He appreciated women. He knew the power we have." His grandmother helped him develop a strong sense of self-worth. Both his grandmother and mother strongly advocated for his education. And his wife, Octavia, was a strong supporter of his civil rights work, as were many of the wives of those in the movement. "They did things locally, even while their spouses were traveling the country," said Morse.
Meanwhile, women worked the phones and handled many of the logistics for civil rights organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), said Morse. King was SCLC's first president. In the 1950s, Vivian and other ministers founded a Nashville branch of SCLC. In 1979, Vivian also co-founded the National Anti-Klan Network. His memoir covers that and more of his long, illustrious career as a minister and peaceful freedom fighter.
If it hadn't been for the racism, Vivian would have been happy to live his whole life in western Illinois: "If only custom and tradition had been willing to accept me at the level of my humanity. I feel we both lost."
Find more information about It's in the Action: Memories of a Nonviolent Warrior, by C.T. Vivian and Steve Fiffer, and purchase a copy at tinyurl.com/y5s54sky.
Contact Rachel Otwell at email@example.com.