King Contemporary Rev. C. T. Vivian:
King’s Lasting Impact
By Jonathan Gramling
Part 1 of 2
It is a delight to hear Rev. C.T. Vivian speak about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Vivian,
who was the keynote speaker at the 2012 City-County King Holiday Observance,
joined King’s staff at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1961 after the
Albany, Georgia marches and stayed with him until King’s assassination in 1968 in
Memphis, Tennessee. As he speaks about King, he always refers to him familiarly as
Martin King, a buddy reflecting back on the adventures of another buddy.
Yet Vivian has a deep and fervent respect for King and what he did for American that
will burn eternally in Vivian’s soul. It is a spiritual, almost messianic respect for
King that almost divides time between Before Martin and After Martin. Id there were
only one historian who could assess King’s impact on American society, one would
want it to be Vivian.
“No person that I have read about in American history has been as pointed out as an
example of the great fathers of this nation, not just talked, but lived that, proved that,
not just for himself to make a million or so, but in fact, to carry out for all of us the true meaning of both our democracy and our Christianity,
our values in other words,” Vivian said. “It doesn’t matter what the religion, we all believe in loving our fellowmen as ourselves. Martin
has done more of that.”
Vivian praised King as a man of action, not only talking the talk, but also walking the walk.
“The thing that is said about his leadership, the scripture talks about it, he went about doing good,” Vivian said. “That’s how they talked
about Jesus. He went about doing good. That’s the only thing that really matters. Did he go about doing good? We can all talk good. Martin
was really about that basic understanding and therefore is the only one who has been offered up a Nobel Peace Prize.”
Vivian was at the dedication of the King Monument on the National Mall and noted the juxtaposition of the King Monument to the
Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial who both owned slaves.
“Washington really bought and sold slaves,” Vivian observed. “He made a lot of money doing that. But he was the Father of the Country.
Jefferson, on the other hand, did not like the whole idea and expressed it better than anyone in the Constitution of America. But he liked the
money because of his lifestyle. What you give up in order to be real, that is the main issue, to be worthy of the titles you have and what
people say of you and the words that you write and what you expect other people to do. When you really look there, you see that Martin
Luther King standing there became the conscience of our nation. He made us live up to our ideals and he did it by doing something. He didn’
t do it by cursing us out. He didn’t do it by trying to belittle us. He did it by caring about us. He did it by caring so much that he was willing to
suffer for what is right. When you think of that kind of understanding of things, then we are looking at a man like Martin King. There is that
saying about if you do good, it will come back to you. But if you do it for it to come back to you, you’ll be disappointed. Think about Martin.
He led the marches, the People’s Movement to march to the Capitol to demand something of the nation. Since Martin did it, we’ve had a
Million People March, but they didn’t know why they were there. I asked them that. I asked one of the groups. We had a fellow on TV about
every other night. What’s his name who had a march at the Mall. Now we don’t even know his name. But Martin has been dead for over 40
years and we not only know his name, we also celebrate his life.”
While King was the leader of the civil rights movement, Vivian noted that what King was leading was a moral and spiritual movement for
the sake of America. And that is why his impact is still being felt decades after his death.
“If we would depend on law, look what happened,” Vivian said. “In the 1860s, they taught us African Americans, millions of us, that we
would be citizens. We didn’t get it until the 1960s, 100 years later. You can’t depend upon the law, but you can depend upon the
righteousness of people, the love and truth and justice of people when they reach their conscience and they say there is something greater
than life, greater than their ordinary stuff. Martin King understood that underneath it all, beyond it all, basic to it all, was whether you reach
the conscience of the people you were talking to, that you proved to them that you love them, that you prove to them that you cared about
them, that you proved to them that you were willing to suffer for them.”
And it was this love for people that endeared him to his own staff.
“I remember we were going up to Jacksonville, Florida,” Vivian said. “In those days, when you left the airplane, you had to walk down the
steps. And if you remember the Philippine dictator, when he found that the good man to replace him was coming back, he had his man to
stand on the roof and when Benigno Aquino was in the doorway, they couldn’t miss him. And they killed him. I remember when we were
getting off and there was a building right there and the roof is flat and it wasn’t very far away. I was trying to get in front of Martin. I was
trying to get in front of him to make certain that there was no one on the roof who was going to shoot him. If they were going to shoot, let
them shoot me or one of the other guys, but not Martin. That’s the kind of love that you got for Martin because you knew that Martin loved
you, that you were really willing to die for him, but not just for him, but because you knew that he was doing more good for more people
than you could ever do and you would rather die and have them live than you live and they die. Martin was that kind of leader who caused
you to think in that way.”
As he got deeper into his story about Dr. King, the comparisons to Jesus, whether purposely or accidentally pursued, became more
manifest. Dr. King has very few financial resources for he stayed focused on the civil rights movement and others. Even when he died,
King had few resources.
“You know what,” Vivian asked the crowd. “When Martin King died, he didn’t have enough money to bury himself. But you see, that’s the
tradition. Jesus didn’t have enough money to bury himself either. Do you understand what I am saying? The great ones are greater than we
think. We don’t think about them after a certain time. ‘What happened to them when …’ If it weren’t for the New Testament, we wouldn’t
know about a good man who lived, that we would not have known the suffering for which he died. When you think about Martin King, I
remember that it was Belafonte who had paid for a burial policy basically, for the family in case anything happened to Martin, he would be
And after King Died, just like Jesus’ disciples, King’s lieutenants first gathered and then went their separate ways.
“People often ask us, ‘Well why didn’t you guys stay together,’” Vivian said. “You had been with him. You were his disciples. You were all
around him. Why didn’t you stay with us and lead the movement?’ The point is we all knew what the rest of the world didn’t know, that
without Martin, we couldn’t save nothing. Without Martin, we weren’t good enough. We weren’t strong enough. We were not capable
enough. We believed in non-violence, but we couldn’t carry it out without Martin. We believed in the great ideas of which we spoke. But to
carry them out in movement fashion to save the nation, we needed the voice and spirit and heart of Martin King. The staff was even seeing
things. They just didn’t know what to do.”
After King was killed, it took only 15 years for a federal holiday to be established in his name. And long before that, communities across the
nation honored the memory of King.
“When you think about how people love Martin, there are over 700 streets in America alone that are named Martin Luther King Jr. Streets,”
Vivian emphasized. “Google had it. Otherwise I would have never known either. But city by city wanted to answer back. Now there were
some cities that answered back because Black people said, ‘We will have a Martin Luther King Jr. Street.’ So they gave us the worst
street in town. We had no way out of it, but we honored Martin one way or the other. And just watch, over a period of time, those streets
are going to be more and more beautiful. And the reason is because they were put in honor of someone who is worthy of it.”
And, in essence, there are still tributes to King being voiced around the world even today whenever the cry for freedom is shouted out.
“He prepared America for the 21st century globally,” Vivian exclaimed. “Think about it. Wherever there is struggle for freedom and justice
today — anywhere in the world — they start singing our song. I know in Poland why they were singing our song because they got a Black
Madonna in Poland. They were already very honest about it. In fact, the thing that hit me one day was he did his first rate work in the worst
section of America, in the poorest, meanest, more hateful, segregated, poorly educated place and had the greatest problems for the longest
period of time of any state in the United States. That’s where he did his best work in spite of it. In fact, they hated him and people like him
and they still want their country back. But regardless, Martin is still here humanizing us, still making us think.”
Rev. C. T. Vivian who spoke at the 2012 City-County
King Holiday Observance, was recently named
executive vice-president of the Southern Christian