On February 16, 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.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OC1Ru2p8OfU . 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. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marian-wright-edelman/ending-the-cradle-to-pris_b_1655138.html . 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.” http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/17698-president-carter-says-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. http://www.ousd.k12.ca.us/restorativejustice and then read this story in the New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/04/education/restorative-justice-programs-take-root-in-schools.html?emc=eta1&_r=0 . 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.