For this week’s Peace of History:
We mourn the deaths of the Rev. C.T. Vivian and Representative John Lewis, who both passed away last week on Friday, July 17, 2020. Their experiences in the Civil Rights Movement, in different but intersecting ways, feel especially pertinent for us to examine in our present historic moment. As the Black Lives Matter movement grows and enters a new phase, and many are wondering what comes next -- let us honor the memories of these lifelong titans in the struggle for justice by examining their early experiences with nonviolent action and their roles in the campaign that shaped a generation of protests: the Nashville Lunch Counter Sit-Ins.
C.T. Vivian’s first experience with nonviolent action happened earlier than many of his peers. In Peoria, IL, 1947, Vivian became involved in his first sit-in campaign to desegregate local lunch counters and restaurants when he met Ben Alexander, a member of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and a local minister. They led a successful campaign using the methods developed by CORE: asserting a nonthreatening but absolutely unavoidable presence to confront consciences directly.
Over a decade later, upon being called to ministry, Vivian went to Nashville to study at the American Baptist Theological Seminary. There, in 1959, he met James Lawson, who was teaching Gandhi’s principles and strategies that he had learned in India. Lawson was a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), the southern director of CORE, and was himself enrolled at the Divinity School at Vanderbilt University -- so he started his nonviolent trainings with other ministers and Black students who attended several colleges in Nashville. Students drawn to the workshops included Diane Nash, Bernard Lafayette, James Bevel, and none other than John Lewis. Many were skeptical going in, but later became some of the most disciplined practitioners and outspoken proponents. Vivian, although having experienced a nonviolent action campaign in practice before, still did the workshops to learn the strategic principles and greater social philosophy of nonviolence, and became a skilled trainer himself.
Lawson started leading these training sessions sporadically out of the basement of his church in 1958, as he got to know C.T. Vivian and other Black ministers and students in Nashville. By the Fall of 1959, more students and young people were becoming interested, momentum had picked up, and Lawson held trainings every Tuesday night for at least the 5 months before the Nashville Sit-In campaign would commence. John Lewis, like so many others of his peers, was enraptured. Also in school for the ministry at American Baptist Theological Seminary, Lewis heard Lawson discussing nonviolence and felt that “it was something I’d been searching for my whole life.” Lewis, like Vivian, quickly became immersed in the nascent movement, becoming a founding member of the Nashville Student Movement in October 1959. Four months later, on February 13, 1960, in-part inspired by the start of the Greensboro Sit-Ins less than two weeks prior, the students initiated their first sit-ins in downtown Nashville.
No one could have known that the success of the Nashville Sit-In campaign would have such immense and lasting consequences. One effect was that the student-leaders emerging from the campaign quickly formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and some members trained by James Lawson went to train more people in other cities across the South -- seeding the principles, strategies, and practices of nonviolent direct action across the region. Others, like John Lewis and C.T. Vivian, built upon the practice of nonviolent action. On May 4, 1961, Lewis joined 6 other African-Americans and six white allies from the North when CORE revived an old FOR project: the integrated Freedom Rides through the South. C.T. Vivian participated in some of the last Freedom Rides that summer, despite the continuing violence against Riders. Lewis and Vivian both suffered nearly deadly attacks on multiple occasions, but when the rest of CORE decided to shift priorities elsewhere, in part to avoid further violence, Lewis, Vivian, and Diane Nash had SNCC take over the project, successfully completing the last rides in August of that year.
As we look at the chain of events that would lead to John Lewis addressing over 200,000 people alongside Dr. King at the 1963 March on Washington, to the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, to C.T. Vivian’s founding of Upward Bound in 1965, Black Action Strategies and Information Center (BASICS) in 1977, and Center for Democratic Renewal with Anne Braden in 1979, and beyond -- we have the privilege of knowing how the stories of C.T. Vivian and John Lewis end. Those foundational experiences, especially those early training workshops and action campaigns, almost read like convenient origin stories for legendary persons like Vivian and Lewis. But it is essential for us to remember that the early successes of the Civil Rights Movement did not come from nowhere, but instead emerged from months of educating, training, and coordinating. James Lawson tilled the soil and planted the seeds -- but he could not have known that his students like C.T. Vivian and John Lewis would carry the fruits of his labors so far. Now, it is our turn.
CALL TO ACTION: Voluntown Peace Trust is planning to run a ~2 hour Intro to Direct Action Workshop next week, between Monday and Thursday. This 2-hour Zoom workshop explores one of the most foundational campaigns in the Civil Rights Movement, which took place in 1960 and still has much to teach us today. Both John Lewis and C.T. Vivien, who died this past week, were involved. The 25-minute documentary “Nashville: We Were Warriors” from “A Force More Powerful” shows the power of nonviolent action training and how strategic planning can create a successful campaign, while introducing us to the students and ministers who were at the core of this campaign and who went on to be key strategists, organizers, and trainers in the Civil Rights Movement. Rev. James Lawson’s workshops in Nashville were the training grounds. This workshop’s agenda includes exercises to help us better understand the lessons they learned about strategic nonviolent actions.
“C.T. Vivian” http://www.ctovma.org/ctvivian.php
“C.T. Vivian, civil rights hero and intellectual, dead at 95” https://www.ajc.com/news/ct-vivian-civil-rights-hero-and-intellectual-dead-at-95/2GOB7SU7MZDHJADH63LIKYHK6M/
“C.T. Vivian, Martin Luther King’s Field General, Dies at 95” https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/17/us/ct-vivian-dead.html
“Jim Lawson Conducts Nonviolence Workshops in Nashville” https://snccdigital.org/events/jim-lawson-conducts-nonviolent-workshops-in-nashville/
“John Lewis” https://snccdigital.org/people/john-lewis/
“John Lewis recounts Freedom Rides, 50 years later” https://www.ajc.com/news/local/john-lewis-recounts-freedom-rides-years-later/mz9l7sgB4TYxhWqbAeS51O/
“John Lewis, Towering Figure of Civil Rights Era, Dies at 80” https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/17/us/john-lewis-dead.html
“Oral History Interview: Reverend C.T. Vivian” https://www.crmvet.org/nars/vivian2.htm