Gary Percesepe

g12c00000013fa64f38fe5a9b3a7e645981908eeff2c20b8507e7db058dNotes From Buffalo, August 9, 2013

On March 7, 1965, the Sheriff of Dallas County, Alabama threw one of the most famous punch­es in American his­to­ry, on the steps of the cour­t­house in Selma. The man that Sheriff Jim Clark punched in the face, C.T.Vivian, was named yes­ter­day as a recip­i­ent of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. 

I called C.T. Vivian this morn­ing at his home in Atlanta to con­grat­u­late him. He deflect­ed my praise and said, “Doc, I have been think­ing about you! What have you been up to? I want to hear all about what you’re doing now. And right now I want to know your phone number.”


James Gardner Clark, Jr. was a cat­tle ranch­er when his life­long friend, Gov. Jim Folsom, appoint­ed him Sheriff of Dallas County in 1955. Clark was a big man, almost six and a half feet tall, fond of wear­ing mil­i­tary styled cloth­ing. In addi­tion to his pis­tol and club, he car­ried a cat­tle prod. He wore a but­ton that said “Never,” his response to the Student Nonviolent Coördinating Committee’s efforts to hold a vot­er reg­is­tra­tion dri­ve in Dallas County. Recruiting Ku Klux Klan sup­port­ers and join­ing forces with the Highway Patrol, he formed a mobile anti-civ­il rights force to con­front the reg­is­tra­tion dri­ve. He arrest­ed three hun­dred stu­dents who had been hold­ing a silent protest out­side the cour­t­house, and used cat­tle prods to force march them three miles to a deten­tion center.

March 7, 1965 became known as “Bloody Sunday,” when Clark’s offi­cers and posse joined Alabama state troop­ers to attack peace­ful pro­test­ers attempt­ing to cross the Edmund Pettus bridge. The state-inflict­ed vio­lence result­ed in the hos­pi­tal­iza­tion of some six­ty pro­test­ers, includ­ing a young man named John Lewis, whose skull was cracked open.

James Baldwin would lat­er write, of Sheriff Clark and Bloody Sunday:

I sug­gest that what has hap­pened to the white Southerner is in some ways much worse than what has hap­pened to the Negroes there … One has to assume that he is a man like me, but he does not know what dri­ves him to use the club, to men­ace with a gun, and to use a cat­tle prod against a wom­an’s breasts … Their moral lives have been destroyed by a plague called color.”


That night, Reverend C.T. Vivian felt that Sheriff Clark need­ed to learn more about democ­ra­cy. As he explained the prin­ci­ples of American democ­ra­cy to the chief law enforce­ment offi­cer of Dallas County, the Sheriff grew impa­tient, and said he had heard enough. C.T. felt that he hadn’t.

C.T. Vivian is slight­ly built, about five foot nine, with a wiry frame. He weighed about 138 pounds on March 7, 1965, pret­ty much what he weighs today. In the years that I worked close­ly with him, doing peace orga­niz­ing and train­ing in non­vi­o­lent resis­tance to oppres­sion, I would be care­ful when hug­ging him good­bye. Last month he cel­e­brat­ed his eighty-ninth birthday.

C.T. Vivian was forty years old when he stood on the steps of the cour­t­house in Selma, Alabama, and offered a prayer for Sheriff Jim Clark and for the democ­ra­cy which is yet to come. Sheriff Clark thought the prayer went on too long. He punched C.T. square­ly in the face. Television cam­eras cap­tured the moment. That evening, forty-eight mil­lion tele­vi­sion view­ers who had tuned in to the pre­mière of Judgment at Nuremburg were shown instead shock­ing footage of fas­cism clos­er to home.


The civ­il rights move­ment after Selma strug­gled to adhere to its non­vi­o­lent phi­los­o­phy, a phi­los­o­phy that Gandhi had called ahim­sa, an expres­sion of deep love for all liv­ing beings, includ­ing one’s oppo­nents; reject­ing the false dichoto­my of “us ver­sus our ene­mies,” ahim­sa aimed to con­vince oppo­nents of the injus­tice of their actions and ulti­mate­ly win their friend­ship, as co-inquir­ers in search of a com­mon truth which stands in judg­ment of us all. Gandhi’s main tac­tic in his fight against the British was what he called Satyagraha, which means “soul-force” or “the pow­er of truth.” Gandhi claimed to have learned his phi­los­o­phy from Jesus of Nazareth. Martin Luther King, Jr. cred­it­ed Gandhi and Jesus as his teach­ers, and insist­ed upon non­vi­o­lence as a phi­los­o­phy of life to be embraced, not mere­ly as a tac­tic. C.T. Vivian, in his var­i­ous lead­er­ship roles with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was in a posi­tion to know King per­son­al­ly. The two men lived around the cor­ner from each oth­er in Atlanta, and Vivian’s wife Octavia was Coretta Scott King’s close friend and biog­ra­ph­er. The depth of King’s com­mit­ment to non­vi­o­lence as a phi­los­o­phy can be seen in his April 4, 1967 speech at Riverside Church in New York City: “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.” . King was round­ly crit­i­cized for this speech, which called for an end to the war to “the tragedy of Vietnam,” named America as the great­est pur­vey­or of vio­lence in the world, and cit­ed the triple evils of mil­i­tarism, racism, and mate­ri­al­ism as a threat to America’s exis­tence as a democracy.

King’s his­toric speech, deliv­ered one year to the day before his assas­si­na­tion, was writ­ten with the help of Bayard Rustin, a gay black American, who will receive the Medal of Freedom posthu­mous­ly this year, along with his friend C.T. Vivian, who nev­er crit­i­cized his friend’s sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion or gen­der expres­sion, and cit­ed Rustin as the key orga­niz­er of the 1963 March on Washington.

One day in 2006, I was in wor­ship with C.T. Vivian, at his home church in Atlanta, when the pas­tor began to speak of those who hate, who har­bor anger and vio­lence in their hearts against their ene­mies, and who seek revenge. I looked over at C.T., and saw his brow fur­row, as if in puz­zle­ment. A minute passed. The pas­tor had moved on in his ser­mon, but I could see that C.T. was still trou­bled by what he had heard. He leaned over to me and whis­pered, “You know doc, I have nev­er felt that way. I just can’t find a minute to hate. I just do not under­stand it.”

On the evening of March 7, 1965, the same man who spoke these words to me lay strick­en on the steps of the cour­t­house in Selma, Alabama. Sheriff Clark had punched him in the jaw, and Cordy Tindell Vivian was silenced.

But not for long.

He was arrest­ed and tak­en to jail. He told me that this is when he was most afraid. He knew he would be tak­en inside, away from the cam­eras, where no one could see what would be done to him, in the name of law and order.


In 2006 I inter­viewed C.T. Vivian in his Atlanta home, and returned there a few weeks lat­er with mem­bers of my fam­i­ly. Octavia was still alive at that time. She would spend her last years in a nurs­ing home, with C.T. beside her most hours of the day. Their love was a fire. I brought her flow­ers, and lis­tened to her sto­ries of the young Coretta Scott at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. My daugh­ter Jae was with me, with her hus­band and their young son, Gavin. My moth­er hap­pened to be in town, and she was with us for this vis­it, as well as my wife (I was mar­ried at the time). The house was like a muse­um, filled with African art and sculp­ture, and first edi­tion books writ­ten by African Americans. C.T. placed in my hands a book of poet­ry by Phyllis Wheatley, the first book pub­lished by an African American. Phyllis Wheatley was born in 1753 in Senegal/Gambia, West Africa.  At the age of sev­en she was seized by slave traders and sold in Boston. C.T gath­ered us around him in his liv­ing room, regal­ing us with sto­ries. On the walls and on almost every avail­able sur­face were arti­facts from the civ­il rights move­ment in America, includ­ing pho­tographs of his friend, Martin Luther King, Jr., that I had nev­er before seen. C.T. Vivian nev­er referred to King by his Christian name, or even as Dr. King. For C.T. he was always referred to as “the Prophet.” Listening to C.T. Vivian tell sto­ries in his liv­ing room, my daugh­ter lis­ten­ing with rapt atten­tion, Gavin rest­ing hap­pi­ly in the great man’s lap, my moth­er look­ing on, I was aware that three gen­er­a­tions of my fam­i­ly were present in that sacred space. I got up to wan­der the house. Behind the liv­ing room, in a kind of cub­by hole, I found a framed copy of a 1965 arrest record, typed with a fad­ed rib­bon, from a small town in Mississippi. Some judge’s name was scrawled at the bot­tom. C.T. Vivian had been charged with “dis­turb­ing the peace.”


Some ver­sions of “peace” need to be dis­turbed. Sheriff Clark was admin­is­ter­ing “jus­tice” on the steps of the cour­t­house in March 1965. “Justice” was mea­sured on the skull of John Lewis, who went on to become a United States Congressman from Alabama. Lewis wrote a book titled, Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement. It con­tains a chill­ing account of what hap­pened to him and oth­er peace­ful demon­stra­tors in Selma, Alabama on that bloody Sunday. We should nev­er for­get that what hap­pened on that day was per­fect­ly legal. We should remem­ber this when we think about what hap­pened to Trayvon Martin in Florida. We should remem­ber this when we think about the fact that almost three fourths of the peo­ple who are impris­oned in America are black or brown. We should remem­ber this when we learn that almost every­one in the prison yard at Sing Sing prison comes from the same three neigh­bor­hoods in New York. I was talk­ing to a for­mer inmate at Sing Sing one day, a Latino named Julio, who explained to me that there is a pipeline from his neigh­bor­hood to prison. Referring to the train track that runs beside Sing Sing prison on the Hudson River, Julio said that it as if a train comes to his neigh­bor­hood each year and every­one gets on, and the train goes and it goes and it goes until it stops at Sing Sing and every­one gets off.

Here in Buffalo, today’s page one head­line in The Buffalo News reads: “Buffalo’s school sit­u­a­tion called ‘dire.’” The state edu­ca­tion com­mis­sion­er in New York calls Buffalo’s edu­ca­tion­al lead­er­ship so weak that it stands less of a chance of turn­ing things around than Rochester. In Rochester, only five per­cent of stu­dents meet or exceed pro­fi­cien­cy stan­dards in read­ing and math­e­mat­ics. What does it mean for a city to have less of a chance of turn­ing things around than a neigh­bor­ing city where nine­ty-five per­cent of stu­dents are fail­ing to become pro­fi­cient in basic skills?

What does it mean that cit­i­zens allow their schools to fail these kids, day after day, and there is no mas­sive protest in the streets, no Satyagraha, no whole­sale mobi­liza­tion of church­es and social ser­vice agen­cies and ordi­nary cit­i­zens, no move­ment of heav­en and earth in the name of jus­tice, to stop this train, to shut off this pipeline from cra­dle to prison?

In Chicago, and in cities like Buffalo, there is a cop in every school. Kids get intro­duced ear­ly to the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem. A black boy born in 2001 has a one in three chance of going to prison in his life­time and a Latino boy a one in six chance of the same fate. The U.S. has the high­est incar­cer­a­tion rate in the world: 7.1 mil­lion adult res­i­dents — one in 33 — are under some form of cor­rec­tion­al super­vi­sion includ­ing prison, jail, pro­ba­tion, or parole. “The tox­ic cock­tail of pover­ty, racial dis­par­i­ties in child serv­ing sys­tems, poor edu­ca­tion, zero tol­er­ance school dis­ci­pline poli­cies, racial pro­fil­ing, unbri­dled pros­e­cu­to­r­i­al dis­cre­tion, and racial dis­par­i­ties in arrests and sen­tenc­ing are fun­nel­ing mil­lions of young and old­er poor peo­ple of col­or, espe­cial­ly males, into dead end, pow­er­less and hope­less lives,” writes Marian Wright Edelman, President of the Children’s Defense Fund. . Across America, the sto­ry is the same: mas­sive fail­ure to edu­cate and men­tor our chil­dren and help steer them to a bet­ter future. It is all per­fect­ly legal, and it is moral­ly perverse.

No won­der President Jimmy Carter said last month, “America has no func­tion­ing democ­ra­cy.”


When President Barack Obama named C.T. Vivian as a recip­i­ent of the Presidential Medal of Freedom yes­ter­day, the cita­tion in the press release reads as follows:

C.T. Vivian is a dis­tin­guished min­is­ter, author, and orga­niz­er. A leader in the Civil Rights Movement and friend to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he par­tic­i­pat­ed in Freedom Rides and sit-ins across our coun­try. Dr. Vivian also helped found numer­ous civ­il rights orga­ni­za­tions, includ­ing Vision, the National Anti-Klan Network, and the Center for Democratic Renewal. In 2012, he returned to serve as inter­im President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

When the pres­i­dent referred to Vision, he was refer­ring to the pro­gram start­ed by Vivian in the 1960s that sent 702 Alabama stu­dents to col­lege with schol­ar­ships. This pro­gram was lat­er called Upward Bound. You may have heard of it. It’s been help­ing black and brown and white kids get to col­lege for over forty-five years.


When Barack Obama was run­ning for pres­i­dent in 2008, he was told that C.T. Vivian was in the audi­ence at one of his cam­paign stops. His staff quick­ly arranged a meet­ing back­stage. A few years ago, I asked C.T. what the president—a for­mer com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­er on the south side of Chicago– had to say that day.

He want­ed to know how we did it, in the move­ment. He want­ed to know how we organized.”


I have a fan­ta­sy. I dream that on the day when this year’s Presidential Medal of Freedom recip­i­ents gath­er at the White House—an impres­sive group that includes, among oth­ers, President Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, and for­mer Washington Post edi­tor Ben Bradlee—the pres­i­dent will turn to C.T. Vivian and ask, “How do we do it? How do we stop fail­ing our young peo­ple, and turn around pub­lic edu­ca­tion in this country?”

In my dream, C.T. tells them about Restorative Justice in pub­lic schools, and tells them how it is help­ing in Oakland. They all watch this video.  and then read this sto­ry in the New York Times . Oprah and the oth­ers get out their check­books to help start it in cities like Buffalo and Rochester, Detroit and Chicago, Los Angeles and your home town. Churches and social ser­vice agen­cies, and ordi­nary cit­i­zens get engaged. A polit­i­cal­ly polar­ized America sets aside its nation­al pas­time of blam­ing and scream­ing on cable TV, and decides that every­one can do some­thing, and that no one gets to sit on the side­lines. Hope is born from a thou­sand points of light, Republican and Democrat and Independent. A nation dis­cov­ers that its most trea­sured asset is its young peo­ple, and that we have a moral imper­a­tive not to fail them, for the chil­dren belong to all of us.


What Sheriff Jim Clarke did on that Sunday in Selma was per­fect­ly legal. What George Zimmerman did to an unarmed teenag­er with Skittles in his pock­et was per­fect­ly legal. The edu­ca­tion­al poli­cies that pre­vail in cities across America that are fail­ing our chil­dren and cre­at­ing a pipeline from cra­dle to prison are per­fect­ly legal.

Martin Luther is reput­ed to have said, “The law is an ass.” His name­sake Martin, in the Letter From a Birmingham Jail, called on all Americans to active­ly but peace­ful­ly oppose laws that were moral­ly wrong. Making a dis­tinc­tion between just and unjust laws and draw­ing upon the wis­dom of Jesus and Gandhi, King coun­seled that unjust laws must be bro­ken open­ly and lov­ing­ly. “I sub­mit that an indi­vid­ual who breaks a law that con­science tells him is unjust, and will­ing­ly accepts the penal­ty by stay­ing in jail to arouse the con­science of the com­mu­ni­ty over its injus­tice, is in real­i­ty express­ing the very high­est respect for law.”


Sheriff Jim Clark’s actions in Selma, viewed by mil­lions of hor­ri­fied Americans, includ­ing President Lyndon Johnson, watch­ing in the West Wing of the White House, led to the pas­sage of the Voting Rights Act. In the 1966 elec­tion, fol­low­ing the pas­sage of the Voter Registration Act, a man named Wilson Baker defeat­ed Sheriff Clark, in part because so many blacks had reg­is­tered to vote. Clark attempt­ed to have 1,600 bal­lots cast for his oppo­nent sup­pressed due to “irreg­u­lar­i­ties”, but court orders placed the votes back on record and Jim Clark lost his job. He went on to sell mobile homes. In 1978, a fed­er­al grand jury in Montgomery indict­ed Clark on charges of con­spir­ing to smug­gle three tons of mar­i­jua­na from Colombia. Sheriff Clark was sen­tenced to two years in prison. He end­ed up serv­ing nine months.

The law is an ass, but C.T. Vivian is now right­ly regard­ed as a nation­al treasure.