PEORIA — As thousands descend on Atlanta and Memphis on April 4 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, another minister, the Rev. C.T. Vivian, harks back to the long moments after the sniper’s shot rang out.
Vivian, formerly of Macomb and Peoria, heard about the shooting from the radio. He was living in Chicago at the time, working to mediate gang wars and fight racial discrimination in trade unions. He rushed home. His wife already knew of King’s death. She said three words, he recalled. “Are you going?”
Within a day, Vivian was in Memphis.
“It was that kind of feeling for all of us,” he said. “You just wanted to get to Martin.”
Vivian, who has lived in Atlanta for many years, will be 94 in July. In 2013, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the nation's highest civilian honor — from then-President Barack Obama. As one of a select cadre of ministers known as King’s lieutenants, anniversaries of pivotal moments in the Civil Rights movement that King led are also anniversaries of Vivian’s personal biography.
Even before Vivian joined the leadership of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1963, he had participated in the Freedom Rides of 1961, after which he was imprisoned and beaten in Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Prison. From then on, he became a critical and important participant in most of the historic confrontations, according to Aldon Morris, a Northwestern University professor and scholar of social movements.
Albany, Ga., in 1961. St. Augustine, Fla., and Birmingham, Ala., in 1963, both of which helped lead to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Selma campaign of 1964, which helped lead to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
By the time Vivian arrived in Selma, he had been beaten, nearly drowned, nearly bombed, and jailed throughout the South. Selma became known for the brutal police violence of the Bloody Sunday beatings on the Edmund Pettus bridge, but not before national television cameras captured a white county sheriff slug Vivian with a left jab on the courthouse steps.
Like King, Vivian learned to live with violence and the threat of violence. They were out to do what Gandhi did with non-violence in India.
In the past, Vivian has sounded almost nonchalant about the brutality he endured. “Once you’ve been beaten, etc., it’s easy,” he said in a 1999 interview.
But 50 years later, it’s still difficult for him to talk about the friend who died at 39. They first met in Nashville, where Vivian was involved in civil rights activities along with students, including the Georgia congressman John Lewis.
“Martin became the person to think about when we think about where do we go from here,” he said in a telephone interview Tuesday from his Atlanta home.
King’s final services were in Atlanta on April 9.
Current aides, former aides, longtime friends and mourners could not wait. Like Vivian, many had to “get to Martin” in Memphis.
Soon after Vivian arrived in Memphis, he was at the R.S. Lewis Funeral Home, where a wake was held before King’s body was transported back to Atlanta. The plane carrying the slain civil rights leader had been chartered by U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy, who would die at the hands of an assassin three months later.
Vivian was part of a large gathering at the airport when the plane arrived. He recalled the touching moment when Coretta Scott King first saw her slain husband’s casket, the intense emotions he and other King colleagues felt as they either watched or lifted the casket into the plane.
“We had to make sure nothing was missed and that we missed nothing."
Before he left Memphis, Vivian went to the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, now the National Civil Rights Museum. He went to Room 306, where King had stayed. He crossed the street and went to the rooming house where he had been told the fatal bullet was fired.
Then Vivian prepared to make his way to Atlanta, where his wife, the late Octavia Vivian, would join him for the funeral.
Pam Adams can be reached at 686-3245 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @padamspam.