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Missouri-Born Civil Rights ‘Warrior’ C.T. Vivian Tells His Story In Posthumous Memoir

Among his many accomplishments as a civil rights leader, the Rev. C.T. Vivian (center) helped integrate Florida's beaches by holding "wade-ins." Some turned violent, like this one in June 1964. Vivian was nearly drowned by a man who held him under water.
Provided by NewSouth Books / State Archives of Florida
Among his many accomplishments as a civil rights leader, the Rev. C.T. Vivian (center) helped integrate Florida's beaches by holding "wade-ins." Some turned violent, like this one in June 1964.

The Rev. C.T. Vivian, the Missouri-born preacher who served as a civil rights leader and confidant to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., died last year at age 95. Now, eight months later, Vivian’s posthumously published memoir brings the full scope of his long life and landmark battles to life.

That includes successful efforts to desegregate lunch counters in Nashville and Peoria, Illinois; beaches in St. Augustine, Florida; and interstate bus lines as a Freedom Rider. Vivian was punched by the notorious Sheriff Jim Clark on the courthouse steps in Selma, Alabama, assaulted in jail and nearly drowned during the St. Augustine “wade-in.” His coolness in the face of violence led Andrew Young to credit his Selma interactions as directly leading to the Voting Rights Act.

031121_provided_CTVivian_02.jpg C.T. Vivian's memoir jacket
Provided by NewSouth Books

But for Vivian, it all began in Boonville, Missouri, and then Macomb, Illinois, where he moved at age 6 and always thought of as home.

“As he was in his final hours, he said, ‘I loved home so much,’” co-author Steve Fiffer recalled on Monday’s St. Louis on the Air. His daughter Denise Morse, who relayed the story to Fiffer, wasn’t sure what he meant. “They’d lived in so many places, and there had been so many stops along the civil rights battlegrounds. She said, ‘Which home?’ And he said, ‘Macomb.’”

Fiffer said people would often give Vivian their condolences upon learning he was from a town of just 8,500 souls. “He would say, ‘No, there were some bad things, but there were some wonderful things there as well,’” Fiffer said.

It was Morse who recruited Fiffer to help write the book, titled “It’s in the Action: Memories of a Nonviolent Warrior.” Fiffer acknowledged that Vivian, who was 94 when work on the book began, didn’t fully recall some events. The book draws not only on Fiffer’s conversations with Vivian for the book, but also previous interviews between the two men, as well as oral histories and other media interviews Vivian did in his earlier years.

Fiffer said Vivian loved books (his collection of African American literature had 6,000 volumes). But while he published a nonfiction analysis of the civil rights struggle in 1970, he never spent time on a memoir until his family recruited Fiffer.

“He was a very humble man. His name might not be as familiar to some of your listeners as some of the names of the iconic civil rights leaders, but he was just as important,” Fiffer said. “He never sought the limelight, and also he was an incredibly busy man.”

After the movement achieved its goals in the South, Vivian moved to Chicago and worked to get jobs for Black people there. He also co-founded VISION, the precursor to Outward Bound and the Seminary Without Walls, a program for training pastors remotely long before Zoom was a thing.

“The title [of Vivian’s memoir] really says it all,” Fiffer said. “You can be a thinker, you can be a writer, you can be a speaker, but you have to translate those words or those thoughts into action to really make a difference. You can’t be sitting back and watching others or wringing your hands. You really have to get out there and make a difference.”

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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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.
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