C.T. Vivian died July 17, 2020 at age 95. Dr. Martin Luther King called him “the greatest preacher to ever live.”
Just outside the historic Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma, Alabama, Amy Goodman had a chance to speak with the civil rights pioneer C. T. Vivian, a close friend and adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Fifty years ago, Vivian was punched in the face by Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark on the courthouse steps in Selma as he tried to escort a group of African Americans inside to register to vote. The punch was so hard, Clark broke his own hand. Vivian speaks about the power of nonviolence and the continued fight for voting rights.
AMY GOODMAN: Just outside the church, I had a chance to speak with the civil rights pioneer C. T. Vivian, who was a close friend and adviser to Dr. King. Fifty years ago, Vivian was punched in the face by Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark on the courthouse steps in Selma as he tried to escort a group of African Americans inside to register to vote. The punch was so hard, Sheriff Clark broke his own hand. C. T. Vivian began by talking about the power of nonviolence.
C. T. VIVIAN: Nonviolent direct action is something we have brought to America, right? Nonviolent direct action has no violence in it, right? It is not there to destroy. It’s there to develop and build. And that’s what we’ve been trying to do. At the core of that is an understanding of faithful life, all right?
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think full voting rights have been achieved at this point?
C. T. VIVIAN: No, because America won’t change that quickly, see? Or if they had of, they would have done it in 1776. There is nothing we haven’t done for this nation. We’ve died for it. But it’s been overlooked, what we’ve done for it. But we kept knowing the scriptures. We kept living by faith. We kept understanding that it’s something deeper than politics that makes life worth living.
AMY GOODMAN: What gave you the courage 50 years ago to stand up at the courthouse, to make that walk?
C. T. VIVIAN: This is a national problem. You can’t keep anyone in the United States from voting without hurting the rights of all other citizens. This is why every man has the right to vote, regardless.
C. T. VIVIAN: Our grandmothers and great-grandmothers taught us how to live, right? Even when they couldn’t speak well, as long as what the society was concerned about. What they were telling us about is as old as the universe itself.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe what happened to you, the violence against you, even leading up to March 7th, when you stood up for voting rights?
C. T. VIVIAN: It’s the understanding of nonviolent direct action. That’s the change. Look, what we have to see, beyond all things, is that Martin King, right, was our leader. What we have and what was given to us from its very beginnings is an understanding that we could not win by killing. Light doesn’t come because of darkness, all right? We are here to change America and always have been. America sees it as they are changing us. But, you see, when a Christian church exists that doesn’t want to accept anybody but white people, right, they’ve already denied the faith, all right? Can you be a Christian and a racist at the same time? See, and we refuse to be racist, right? We just want to simply tell America what their faith is about. America talks about democracy, but they’ve kept us from voting for years. And even when they give us the vote on paper, politically, they turn around and take away the important part of what we fought for and what they said they were giving, all right? The truth is that we have to work together to save ourselves politically, save ourselves spiritually and save ourselves physically. We’re not going to be able to do it until we listen to the faith without the hate. When a preacher has to stand at the door and keep people out because of the color of their skin, something’s wrong with their faith.
AMY GOODMAN: Did you stand in front of Sheriff Clark and get punched in the face?
C. T. VIVIAN: Well, yes, but that’s not why I was standing there.
C. T. VIVIAN: We’re willing to be beaten for democracy, and you misuse democracy in the street!
C. T. VIVIAN: The point being is I was standing in front of him because we don’t have to fear the opposition, and we are willing to die for the freedom they say they have, all right?
AMY GOODMAN: And when he attacked you, especially for young people to understand your thoughts at the time, what went through your mind?
C. T. VIVIAN: Is that the problem was him. I wasn’t the problem. He was trying to get rid of us, so that he could act as though that the problem was us. The problem is never the person that’s being beat, all right? It’s the person that doesn’t have a reason to beat people and beats people, who hates people and have no reason for it, right? We’ve done nothing. What have we—what have we done to America that they should hate us so, right? We haven’t done it to America. America is—but you can state 30 or 40 things very quickly about what “American democracy,” quote-unquote, has done to us. And we were just trying to live for the faith. Died in every war—every war, all right? And yet anybody who came here 10 minutes later was accepted.
AMY GOODMAN: Senator Sessions yesterday, who was here, the Republican senator from Alabama—
C. T. VIVIAN: Yeah, yeah, Republican.
AMY GOODMAN: —said that voting rights is now protected, that the Shelby decision was a good decision, we have come a long way from 50 years ago.
C. T. VIVIAN: He said that about every black freedom that we have had in this country since he’s been born, all right? Much less since he’s been in Congress and in politics. And he claims—he comes from a state that has always had to wait for decency.
AMY GOODMAN: Last question: Do you see marriage equality as part of the civil rights struggle?
C. T. VIVIAN: Oh, of course. In fact, any time—women are treated so badly in this nation, that we should all be ashamed of ourselves.
AMY GOODMAN: So, this week the state Supreme Court, Chief Justice Roy Moore in the Alabama Supreme Court, put a halt to all same-sex marriages.
C. T. VIVIAN: I understand that. That’s to be decided by God, not to be decided by people like that who have never loved other people in their lives.
AMY GOODMAN: C. T. Vivian, thank you very much.
C. T. VIVIAN: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: C. T. Vivian, speaking outside the Brown Chapel AME Church. Senator Barack Obama, in 2007, called him “the greatest preacher to ever live.” On August 8, 2013, President Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He also participated in the Freedom Rides. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. C. T. Vivian was speaking outside the Brown Chapel, where hundreds of people packed in this past Sunday, as they did 50 years ago on Bloody Sunday, outside to begin their march to the Edmund Pettus Bridge. When we come back, we’ll hear from inside the chapel and then outside, the marchers, tens of thousands who took to the bridge to remember the bravery of those who walked for voting rights 50 years ago. Stay with us.