Like others who helped to lead the civil rights movement, the Rev. C. T. Vivian was a man of vision — a humanitarian who saw in the unfinished American project the possibility of a “beloved community” where all are accorded dignity, respect and equal rights. But he was also a realist who was clear-eyed about the barriers that blocked the path toward that longed-for place.
Vivian, who died in July, is best known as a lieutenant to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who marched, organized and strategized for equal rights. But Vivian also saw the dangers of white extremism after the height of the civil rights era, when few were focused on Klansmen and other white supremacists — racists who never really went away but who could stay submerged just beneath the political surface for decades, only to burst suddenly into view.
In 1979, Vivian co-founded the National Anti-Klan Network with Anne Braden, another veteran of civil rights activism. The organization was formed after armed Klansmen had attacked a march organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Decatur, Ala.
By the time I became editorial page editor of the Atlanta Constitution in 1992, the organization was known as the Center for Democratic Renewal, and Vivian was still ferreting out white extremists who he believed posed a threat. As part of my job, I regularly hosted meetings with political and community leaders to hear their concerns — including Vivian on several occasions.
My colleagues and I took those meetings out of a deep reverence for his history. Vivian had been among the young adults who sat in at lunch counters and put their lives on the line as Freedom Riders in the dangerous campaign to desegregate interstate bus travel. Jim Clark, the racist sheriff of Dallas County, Ala., had infamously punched Vivian in the face on the steps of the Selma courthouse when Vivian had tried to register Black citizens to vote. Vivian was beaten and arrested countless times.
When I met Vivian in the 1990s, he had begun to focus on white extremists, a preoccupation I thought was misplaced. I believed the Ku Klux Klan was a spent force and that allied groups represented no real threat. As I saw it, his time would have been better spent on the more fashionable causes of the day, such as affirmative action in corporate offices. Tall and lean, he was always a natty dresser, resplendent in a suit, crisp-white shirt and tie. He looked like he belonged in a corporate office himself.
But he never forsook the crusade for social justice, and he saw clearly what I could not. The CDR was among the first groups to highlight the dangers of the political rise of David Duke, a former Grand Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Having been elected to the Louisiana House of Representatives in 1989, Duke ran a competitive campaign for governor in 1991.
While the CDR never had the funding or the fame of similar groups, it did important work with allies such as the Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Council of Churches. And it didn’t just focus on the KKK. The center’s work was far-ranging, from the Appalachian foothills to Western farmlands, where it implemented programs to curb the influence of groups such as Posse Comitatus. It is now only too clear how prescient Vivian was.
Dedicated to the premise of genuine multiculturalism, he was also among those who saw, early on, the need to teach strategies to promote racial harmony in the workplace. In 1977, he founded a consulting group, the Black Action Strategies and Information Center, which gave counsel to employees of workplaces ranging from corporate suites to retail warehouses. He also continued to give speeches around the country warning against white extremism and preaching the value of non-violence in achieving a just society.
Vivian lived long enough to see the harvest of his life’s work, including the election of the nation’s first Black president. But as the ranks of white extremists rose and swelled, he saw, too, the long road ahead toward the beloved community. He would want us to continue that journey.