Legendary civil rights leader Rev. C.T. Vivian turned 95 this year, celebrating a lifetime of wisdom and service. Rev. Vivian, a Presidential Medal of Freedom winner, was a leader in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a confidant of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and a role model for so many of us in the 1960s era of civil rights activism. He remains an indispensable long haul moral, racial, and economic justice warrior. I am so grateful for his friendship and example.
A few years ago Rev. Vivian inspired and challenged a receptive Children’s Defense Fund audience of college students when he said he believes young people today are inheriting the world at a unique crossroads in history and that “this is the moment we have waited for.” He explained: “When I say ‘we’ve’ waited for, I’m talking about humankind has waited for. I’m talking about all the great philosophers and thinkers have waited for this moment. We have lived like we have lived, blowing each other up, killing each other, stealing from each other, making a world that is not fit for human beings — we have lived that way because it’s been allowed to be.” But Rev. Vivian said he believes we are finally reaching a tipping point where many are realizing that “today, if we decide to live like we lived yesterday, none of us will live at all.” I truly hope so for our children and grandchildren’s sake!
The 1960s civil rights movement laid a foundation for this new world as ordinary people tired of injustice seized the moral high ground and confronted the racial violence surrounding them with controlled, disciplined, nonviolent action which allowed America to see there was another way to create change. As a leader in the Nashville sit-in movement, one of the ministers who joined Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) members on Freedom Rides into Mississippi, and a SCLC leader bringing people to the steps of Selma’s courthouse to vote, Rev. Vivian faced violence repeatedly. But when he was beaten and jailed he never wavered. He believed along with Gandhi and Dr. King that human history has shown hatred and violence always destroy more than they create. Now, he says, “the central task will be to remove violence as a means of solving social problems” for good: “When we really think of it that way, then we are on our way. The task will be different than before. We all dreamed of it. We sat in church and talked about it. We made songs about it. We talked about a new world coming. We talked about all of that, right? Now that it’s here, we’ve got to make it real.”
His words have a special meaning and challenge today when violence as a conflict resolution strategy has become a daily threat in this era of domestic and global terrorism, out of control demagogic political discourse encourages violence at home and fuels anger around the world, and relentless gun violence driven by a powerful gun lobby saps the lives of 30,000 human beings in our nation every year including thousands of innocent children. Since 1947 the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has published a “Doomsday Clock” to warn us all about how close humans are to global destruction as a result of weapons and technology we’ve created. In 2018, they reset the clock to 2 minutes to midnight, tying 1953 as the most dangerous time in history. They explained that a renewed threat of nuclear conflict and the existential threat posed by climate change have created what they call “the new abnormal.”
But rather than be discouraged or paralyzed by the disturbing direction our nation and world have been heading again, we need to get up, organize, and mount without ceasing our strong nonviolent voices and witnesses to change the narrative of what it means to be a good steward of God’s earth and all of God’s peoples. What is it going to take for enough of our political leaders and citizens to stand up and reject the old world view too often riddled with intolerance and hatred and confront those who fuel racial and religious intolerance within and without our borders? How many of us will stand up and say no to the violence of coarse and careless political, racial, gender-based, and any other rhetoric intended to demean other human beings that teaches our children we cannot disagree without being disagreeable? And when will a critical mass of people and leaders come together determined to pass on a safer and better nation and world order to our children and grandchildren? If Rev. Vivian is right, now is the moment we are waiting for.
Marian Wright Edelman is the current President of the Children’s Defense Fund.