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Remembering MLK's 'Field General,' C.T. Vivian

C.T. Vivian being interviewed for Eyes on the Prize
Washington University Libraries
C.T. Vivian is pictured here in a still from an interview for "Eyes on the Prize I."

Vernon Mitchell Jr. was an undergrad at the University of Missouri-Columbia, intent on heading next to medical school, when he enrolled in a course on the Black freedom movement — and soon decided to become a historian instead.

Vernon Mitchell Jr.
Credit Washington University
Vernon Mitchell Jr. is a lecturer in Washington University's American Culture Studies program.

“It changed everything for me,” Mitchell told St. Louis on the Air about the class, taught by Mizzou’s Carol Anderson.

And one moment, and person, stood out to Mitchell as his professor introduced her students to key figures and events in the civil rights movement: the Rev. C.T. Vivian, a Missouri native and Christian minister described by the New York Times as a “field general” for Martin Luther King Jr.

The footage of Vivian confronting law enforcement in 1965 on the steps of a Selma, Alabama, courthouse has remained seared in Mitchell’s consciousness ever since.

In it, Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark and other officers soon turn to inflicting violence upon Vivian and the other peaceful protesters. Vivian can be heard delivering what Mitchell has described as a “masterful treatise on American democracy.”

“And for me it was like, I want to tell these stories,” Mitchell said of his reaction to the footage. “He ministered to me as a student to become a student of history in a formal sense.”

On Tuesday’s show, Mitchell joined host Sarah Fenske to remember the life and legacy of Vivian, who died Friday at the age of 95 — mere hours before a fellow civil rights legend, U.S. Rep. John Lewis, 80, died.

Mitchell pointed out that by the 1960s, Vivian was already a middle-age man and a veteran when it came to pushing for change.

“He’s been through all types of trainings and things of this nature around nonviolent direct action," Mitchell said. "And he also was a theologian. He had been [at] seminary in Nashville. And so he was ready and had been equipped to do this fight.”

The Washington University faculty member, who is also the academic engagement programs manager for Wash U Libraries, emphasized the importance of the 14-part “Eyes on the Prize” film series to his own understanding of Vivian and other civil rights figures, many of whom are no longer living.

Originally premiering on PBS in two parts in 1987 and 1990, a vast archive of the raw (and searchable) interviews conducted for the series is accessible online via Wash U’s own Film & Media Archive and its Henry Hampton Collection, including the filmmakers’ full conversation with Vivian.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.