On July 17, 2020 I got the news that C. T. Vivian died in Atlanta, two weeks before his 96th birthday, and on the same day that his friend and fellow activist, Congressman John Lewis, also passed to his eternal rest. The news whisked me back almost thirty years, to a fall weekend in 1991, when I met The Reverend Cordy Tindell Vivian in connection with my graduate program in Counselor Education at North Carolina State University (NCSU), in Raleigh, NC. The news of his passing sparked some reflection on the trajectory of my vocation and my evolving conscience around racial justice over the past three decades.
Today I work as Director for Christian Education and Faith Formation for the National Council of Churches as. In this capacity I facilitate the work of the Christian Education and Faith Formation Convening Table. Over the course of this past year participants sought to answer this question: How can we as educators, pastors, and Christian publishers advocate and advance education in our respective denominations about the importance of historical remembrance, especially as it regards racial equity and justice? We explored responses to the question from many different angles. Finally, we landed on a proposal for, “Spiritual Practices Shaping Spirit-led Work for Justice.” The beauty of the proposal is that it allows freedom to be in conversation with one another and to learn from one another about paths of discipleship that weave together the cords of justice and of prayer in our personal lives, in our congregations, and in our way of being Christians in the world. It is in this context that I offer my reflection on C. T. Vivian’s life and influence.
In 1991, as a graduate student intern in the student development office on the NCSU campus, I was invited to attend a weekend-long Race Awareness Workshop. I loved the campus environment, was excited about my graduate program’s emphasis on college student development, and was eager to take advantage of every opportunity for vocational growth. I signed up for the retreat completely unaware of what I was getting myself into.
To the best of my recollection, there were about 20 participants in the workshop. In addition, there were about 10 “observers” who sat outside the circle as a kind of witness to all that would unfold in the experience of the participants. The observers had insider information about what to expect, but they were learning too, albeit from a different vantage point as they absorbed the reactions of participants who did not yet know what the observers knew. A distinguished looking man walked into the room and was introduced to us simply as, C. T. Vivian.
In writing this article, I contacted a few of my former NCSU colleagues to ask what they remembered about their first encounter with C. T. and the Race Awareness Workshop. One person who was working in NCSU’s residential life program at the time, later went on to become a high-school administrator. He recalls that there was a woman who came in with C. T., but she was not introduced. She stood behind him, clipboard in hand, and appeared to be some kind of secretary. It’s rather telling that I do not remember her. I was not consciously aware at the outset of the fact that C.T., an African-American man, occupied a position of power and prestige, while the secretary, who was white, was persona non grata. As an unnamed note-taker, she was meant to be somewhat invisible and in a clearly subservient role to C. T. Vivian, the lead presenter. Soon these distinctions worked their way into the group discussion, but it was far from the most surprising revelation of that day.
I knew we were in the workshop to deepen our “race awareness,” but I was not quick to pick up on the fact that the early sessions were an experiment in what it feels like to have cultural norms reversed on an unsuspecting group. In this experiment, of which we were given no advanced instruction, some of the participants were treated much kindlier than others. I was among those who were spoken to dismissively. I remember feeling a little sick when called upon because I worried my answer was sure to be blasted or discredited. One specific instance is seared into my gut because of the absolute bewilderment and shame I felt in absorbing C. T. ‘s incredulity at my response to a question he’d put out to the group. C. T. played an audio recording of a man reading a poem. I do not recall the name of the poem or the name of the reader, but I suspect I might immediately recognize his voice if it were played for me again today. The reader spoke in a rich baritone, his words as mellifluous as a song. If I had to say, my recollection is that the poem was about the city of Chicago. Following the poem, C. T. asked the group what we heard. I dared to raise my hand to respond. Now, something you should know about me. I’m an extravert and someone who loves to learn, and I have always been eager (perhaps a little too eager) to please my teachers and people in authority. This workshop was perfectly designed for someone like me, because my learned experience was that teachers would be kind and generous with praise for every student who put out even a modest effort. My eagerness to learn fed off their approval. Praise was not happening in this workshop, or at least not for me. My answer to C. T.’s question was that the man narrating the poem seemed to be an older gentleman reminiscing over the years of growing up in the city and reflecting on what the city gave to him across those years. Rather than any affirmation, C.T. grilled me to such an extent that I could feel tears welling up and I sucked in hard to find my composure. He fired question after question at me.
C.T. What kind of a man?
Me: An old man.
C. T. No. What color is the man?
Me: I don’t know. I cannot tell just by hearing his voice.
C. T. You’re telling me you can’t tell this is a Black man.
Me: Yes. I mean, no. I mean, I don’t hear “color.”
I felt insecure and my mind buzzed to figure out what I was doing wrong. I grew up surrounded by many different accents and can quite easily distinguish an Italian accent from a French or German accent. I can pick out a Newfoundlander’s accent from that of an Edmontonian. After a few years in the U.S. I began to note the differences between a California accent and a New York accent or tell a Minnesota accent from a Texas accent. Until that day, I can honestly say I’d never associated someone’s accent with the person’s skin color – but I sure do pay attention to it now! Traumatized by my failure to live up to C. T.’s standards, I did not raise my hand again or try to contribute to the conversation for the rest of the morning for fear of embarrassing myself further. Intent as I was on learning from the experience, I remained clueless of the distinctions C. T. was making in his favoritism and failed to make the connection that it was the white participants who were the ones being treated as inferior. I, of course, saw that some participants received a lot of praise for their insights while others were knocked down, but it was only in the second segment of the workshop that C.T. opened our eyes to the unwitting experiment in which we were the subjects. The African-American participants were “good,” “smart,” “gifted.” The white participants were “bad,” “ignorant,” “intellectually inferior.” He was teaching us how quickly we absorb a new normal. For the remainder of the weekend he was a patient mentor, his harsh edges softened and everyone in the room rose to the level of his high expectations for what could be gained in our coming together to talk about race and racial prejudice.
In the later part of the workshop the conversation opened up to how participants personally experienced race in their everyday lives. I remember being a bit baffled that some of the participants thought it awkward that a Black man would be in a position of authority over a white woman. I did not have enough knowledge of Southern culture to appreciate how far out of the cultural norm this scenario would appear to most of the participants who were born and raised in the Carolinas. C.T. was an amazing facilitator in drawing out brutal honesty from the participants. One of white participants shared a story of how her mom regularly told her to “lock the car door” if ever they saw a Black man in a parking lot, regardless if there was any reason to imagine him a threat. A Black participant responded how fearful it was for him to walk into a store and immediately sense a security person tailing his every move, because it was assumed he might be shop-lifting. I had deep empathy for everyone who was brave enough to share on such a personal level.
I started to see my own experiences of race and ethnicity in a new and different light. I grew up in Calgary, Alberta which was (and still is) one of Canada’s largest cities and the center of the country’s oil and natural gas industries. I attended a large, public, high-school that was a melting-pot for students of many different ethnic backgrounds. It was the 1970s, and though most of us were “Canadians,” it was still common for high-school students to have at least one grandparent who was an emigrant to Canada. Founded in 1867, our country is more than 100 years younger than the United States. My mom’s father came to Canada at the age of sixteen. My father’s parents were Russian-born and in 1922, during the Bolshevik Revolution, came as refugees to Canada with two small children. Among my classmates were stories of families coming to Canada from Israel, Iran, Pakistan, China, Korea, India, Germany, Scotland, England, Ireland, Italy and many other Asian, Middle-Eastern, and European countries. I do not recall any of my classmates having family ties to Africa or South America—in recent decades that has shifted and now people from every country of the world are drawn to Canada.
After high-school, and on the advice of my youth minister, I attended a Nazarene college in Oklahoma. There were three or four other Canadians from my home church that also came to Southern Nazarene University (SNU) for a year or two, but I was the only one stubborn enough to graduate and bear up under the culture shock of coming from the crisp, mountain air of the Western Canadian Rockies to the stifling hot, bald-headed prairie of the American Midwest. At first, I felt like Eddie Murphy’s character in Groundhog Day, except that I was stuck in a 1980’s episode of the nighttime soap, Dallas. It was initially quite disorienting. Lest that all sounds too disparaging, I have to add that once I got acclimated to the campus I found many things to love and appreciate about Oklahoma and in particular the life-long friendships initiated on campus.
As a Canadian, I was funneled into the “international student orientation” for first year college students. There were only a small number of students in the program and except for the other Canadian and me, most of the international students were recruits for the college soccer program from mission outposts in the African countries of Gambia and Nigeria. These were the first friends I made on campus. Naturally, we sought each other out in the cafeteria at lunch time to support one another in learning our way around campus and finding amenities in the town surrounding the campus. Following orientation, I eventually got to know some of the women in my residence hall and my circle of friends expanded. Through my involvement in the music program I latched onto a student from Maine who was drawn to SNU for its renowned jazz band. Probably 98% of the 1200 or so students on campus were from Oklahoma or Texas. It was strange to me how many people commented that my “accent” was not understandable. I certainly had no trouble understanding their mid-western twang, so what was so complicated about Canadian? Struggling to adapt to college life and hundreds of miles from home, I continued to seek out others, who like me could not visit family on weekends. It turns out that these were mostly my African friends from the soccer team. It also turns out that a white Canadian woman sitting and laughing with dark-skinned African men was drawing a lot of attention. I remained blissfully unaware of the campus buzz until about two months into the semester when one of the second-year students who lived on my floor in the residence hall, timidly asked “why do you always sit in the Black section of the dining hall?” I laughed and said “what are you talking about?” She laid it out for me. I told her about the friendship that had begun in orientation and explained that I didn’t really know anyone else on campus well enough to seek them out at meal time. Had I not been so naïve, it would likely have blown my mind that she asked to join me so that she, too, might get to know my African friends.
This is the story I shared in the C.T. Vivian workshop. It was in the context of this safe learning space that I was able to look back on my college experience and see what was invisible to me at the time. That is, how much easier it was for me as a white, non-resident alien, to assimilate into the campus culture than it was for my friends from Gambia and Nigeria. I perhaps chalked it up to their love of soccer, and imagined (if I gave it any thought at all) that it was their choice to stay out of the many other opportunities to get involved in campus life. Now, sitting in this room with C. T. Vivian and talking about race, a different narrative occurred to me. With stunning clarity I was moved to appreciate how any culture shock I experienced as an “outsider” on that Oklahoma campus was infinitesimal in comparison to the Black students’ experience – and that applied whether the students grew up two blocks away from the campus or had come from another continent. Black students from anywhere had to stick together to survive, whereas my whiteness allowed me to more easily find a way in; to be welcomed and embraced even if I did not fit exactly into the mainstream of the campus culture.
It’s taken me almost thirty years to fully awaken to the truth in the seeds C. T. Vivian planted in my conscience during that weekend workshop. I am chastened to admit that I have not thought of C. T. Vivian since I left North Carolina in 1997, though I surely took something of his teaching with me into the places that were to follow: Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania. Still, it was only upon hearing the news of his death that I thought to ask, “who was C. T. Vivian, really?”
I have easy excuses for not knowing what I did not know back then. The truth that confronts me today is that white privilege afforded me greater opportunities and less negative stereotyping than what was extended to my fellow-students who were born with darker complexions. My light skin made it possible for me to survive in the American South as a non-resident alien from Alberta, Canada, without scratching even a surface awareness of the systemic racism and anti-Black animus that infects the Western world—yes, even Canada! Why did it take me nearly thirty years to discover the depths of the Reverend C. T. Vivian’s legacy? Because, to be white, allowed me to live in a protected bubble that floats above the ugliness of injustices weighed down on those who come into this world with Black and Brown bodies. For all the discomforts I experienced as an outsider, there was relative ease for blending into the mainstream and I unquestioningly benefited from many invisible privileges passed to me, simply because I blended into the dominant culture.
Since learning of Rev. Vivian’s death this past July, I was drawn to make up for lost time, searching the Internet for news stories and seeking out with fresh interest the details of his remarkable life. I now know that Cordy Tindell Vivian was born July 28, 1924 in Boonville, Illinois. After his parent’s divorce, Vivian’s mother and grandmother moved to McComb, Illinois because C. T. was nearing school age and the county was known for its desegregated school system. In his teenage years, he was an active youth member of the Allen Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where he taught Sunday school and later served as president of the youth group. He graduated from McComb High School in 1942. Because McComb was also the home of Western Illinois University, C.T. grew up with the expectation that he would attend the university. In the fall of 1942, even as World War II raged on, he did indeed enter Western Illinois University. He was not deterred by the roadblocks of racism that were constructed by his fellow students and even some of his professors, but forged his own path, and created opportunities for himself whenever he found an opening, including becoming a journalist for the college newspaper. Upon graduation, with a B.A. in Education, he accepted a position as recreation director for the Carver Community Center in Peoria, Illinois.
According to the C. T. and Octavia Vivian Museum Archives website (ctovma.org), C. T. began ministerial studies in 1959 at American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee, where he met James Lawson and other students in the Nashville Student Movement, including Diane Nash, Bernard Lafayette, James Bevel, John Lewis and others from American Baptist, Fisk University and Tennessee State University. Under Lawson’s leadership, the students of the Movement studied nonviolent direct-action strategy, and
“executed a systematic non-violent campaign for justice. On April 19, 1960, 4000 demonstrators marched on Nashville, Tennessee City Hall where C. T. Vivian and Diane Nash challenged Nashville Mayor Ben West on racial injustice in Nashville. As a result, Mayor West publicly agreed that racial discrimination was morally wrong.” (http://www.ctovma.org/ctvivian.php)
Eventually, C. T. Vivian would become founder of BASIC Diversity, Inc. now the nation’s oldest diversity consulting firm, operating nationally for over 45 years. It is his work with this foundation that brought C. T. Vivian to the NCSU campus, where I met him in 1991. Today the organization is operated by C. T. ‘s son, Al Vivian. Al continues in his father’s footsteps. “He has worked with people from all walks of life; from CEO′s to sanitation workers and every occupation in between. He has provided diversity counsel to civic and religious leaders, political officials, and television news personnel.” (http://www.basicdiversity.com/company-leadership.html)
C. T. Vivian stands as an icon of the Civil Rights movement. Clearly, he was a kindred spirit for all who love justice and seek, as Congressman John Lewis did, to redeem the soul of our nation. How is it possible to have experienced the prick of my conscience under his direct leadership and yet have neglected all of these years to dig deeper into his life and ministry? On August 8, 2013, how did I miss the press release announcing that President Barack Obama named C. T. Vivian as a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and praised Rev. Vivian as a distinguished minister, author, and organizer. “A leader in the Civil Rights Movement and friend to Martin Luther King, Jr., he participated in Freedom Rides and sit-ins across our country. Vivian also helped found numerous civil rights organizations, including Vision, the National Anti-Klan Network, and the Center for Democratic Renewal.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C._T._Vivian) All of these years later, I feel a renewed debt of gratitude for all C. T. Vivian taught me, and at the same time, I am compelled to investigate his life more fully and to embrace his cause more ardently.
Unquestionably, in 1991, the Race Awareness Workshop did what it was intended to do, and moved me to direct action. In the weeks and months immediately following the 1991 Race Awareness Workshop I and my colleagues were inspired to actively engage with other students about what we had learned and we were creative in implementing a number of programmatic responses to build race awareness into the students’ campus experience. With support from the student development office, I instituted the “C.T. Vivian Race Awareness Newsletter” to bring together in one communication all of the programs, events, and initiatives that had to do with building race awareness. There were brown-bag forums, ideas for curriculum design, workshops for Greek Life, African-American gallery exhibits, and many other opportunities at every level of university life. I took advantage of an opportunity to use a graduate class project to design a workshop for new student orientation that could engage incoming students in a frank discussion of stereotypes and “Celebrating Our Differences.” Following graduation, I was offered a position on campus as an academic advisor and in my work with the First Year Experience program, I continued to receive training on race awareness and actively sought to integrate appreciation for diversity into every facet of student programming. There was an abundance of effort to awaken white students to the value of race awareness while simultaneously building a coalition of support for the Black students on campus. Yet, for all my effort and good intention, I remained ignorant of America’s legacy of slavery and of the need for a critical re-examination of history to lay bare the racism that has profoundly shaped the social and economic fabric of American society for more than 400 years. I whole-heartedly embraced the values C.T. instilled in me, and yet, when I left my position with the university in 1997, I now see that I inadvertently left behind a sense of urgency for bringing justice to bear in the world.
In writing this article, there were some gaps in my memory of the work I and my colleagues did on the NCSU campus, and I wanted to get it right. I reached out to someone who I thought might still work at the University. That initial contact opened the door for me to connect with others who, like me, met C. T. Vivian in the early 90s. I shared my story and asked if they would share their stories. Like me, they acknowledged that being white allowed a privilege and a freedom that anesthetized us to the injury racism inflicts day in and day out on our Black and Brown colleagues. Like me, they lost some of the fervor for “waking up” white people after leaving NCSU. Each of us went on to pursue other jobs, to tackle other life circumstances, to fulfill other family obligations.
As I look back on those years at NCSU, it occurs to me that if I’d come to campus as a Black or Brown-skinned person, it is likely that I would have more quickly sought to know C. T. Vivian and been more eager to understand the rich heritage of civic engagement he gave as a gift to this world. I would have been drawn to the African-American Cultural Center on campus, not just to attend events, but drawn for my soul’s sustenance. I would have sought out the wisdom of other Black and Brown students in order to navigate the maze of racist policies that put roadblocks in my path toward graduation, to landing my first job, to opening a bank account, and to eventually getting a mortgage and buying a house. In spite of any disadvantages I encountered in forging my path as an immigrant to the United States, I see now how my whiteness allowed for an accommodation to my differences, and gained me privilege and access to some opportunities that would not have come to me if I’d been the same non-resident alien, but with darker skin.
In 2020 C. T. Vivian and his friend, John Lewis, call me to do better. I am not discouraged by the enormity of the task. I will hold tight to Congressman Lewis’ death bed conviction that, “Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble.” (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/30/opinion/john-lewis-civil-rights-america.html)
The events of 2020 are fanning the coals C. T. Vivian once lit in my belly. Those warm embers were stoked when the coronavirus pandemic began to expose hateful biases against the Asian-American community. That was just the beginning. I was further aroused out of complacency, as were all who hold concern for the soul of America, when day after day we witnessed the deepening divide the health crisis exposed in our economy and in our healthcare system. We grew fearful as we saw the numbers of positive cases of COVID-19 rage beyond the predicted capacity of what hospitals could adequately manage and mourned the astounding loss of life. Quickly it became clear that a grossly disproportionate number of People of Color not only suffered higher rates of joblessness and lack of access to medical treatment, but were also reporting an excessively higher rate of COVID-related deaths. Further fueling the fires of injustices of the pandemic, is the news of escalating police brutality. In this article, I mention only three of the many African-American men and women who were murdered by police in 2020. Everyone deserves mention and you can read every name and every story online by searching #saytheirnames (https://sayevery.name/).
February 23, Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed 25-year-old African-American man, was fatally shot in Glynn County, Georgia, by three armed white men who decided Arbery looked guilty of something because he was jogging through the neighborhood.
March 13, three plainclothes Louisville Metro Police fatally shot and killed Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old African-American emergency medical technician. The officers were executing a no-knock search warrant at her apartment—the wrong apartment.
May 25, I joined the throngs of people who took to the streets all across the world to protest the killing of George Floyd who cried out, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,” under the deadly force of a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, who despite a previous relationship with Floyd, pressed down his knee on Floyd’s neck and refused to heed his cries for help.
I feel the fire in our collective belly is wildly raging!
What is the way forward? As a person of deep faith, my instinct is to look to the Church. In spite of the Church’s many great failures, there are times when we who are called by Christ’s name, do get it right—not perfect, but certainly a bold move in the right direction. As I survey the surrounding culture, there are lots of reasons to despair, and yet I see a stirring among white Christians that aligns with my own sense of urgency and it gives me reason to hope. There is a fresh awareness that dismantling racism and racist policies must not continue to fall excessively or exclusively on the shoulders of Black and Brown people. It was always true, but in 2020 it is time for white people to come together with our siblings of color and work like never before to build a new future that integrates justice and peace with health and well-being.
What must we do?
Recently, I heard Dr. Joerg Rieger of the Wendland-Cook Program in Religion and Justice at Vanderbilt Divinity School, in a compelling interview with Dr. Angela Cowser, Associate Dean of Black Church Studies and Doctor of Ministry programs at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Dr. Cowser gave this analogy,
“If there is a cancer in the body we have to get the diagnosis right because there are a lot of different types of cancer. There are a lot of different kinds of anti-black animus, kinds of racism. In the encyclopedia of racism there are literally thousands of different kinds of racism in the world. The diagnosis of the disease needs to be correct, otherwise the treatment will not work. We have never, in this country had a full and complete diagnosis of what ails the body politick with respect to race. Never. What that means is that our approaches to try and fix it are inadequate, incomplete, abortive, simplistic, short-term, ignorant and ineffective. Once we have a complete diagnosis then we can say what medicine we need in order to address and try to stop the spread of the cancer. If we don’t get the diagnosis right and the medicine right, then the cancer spreads. . .” (Recorded on July 1, 2020. Go to, YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V7dFMGsPoXE)
If my 1991 self would have had the benefit of the knowledge of 2020, I might have realized that those of us who wanted to implement a change in the campus culture in response to C. T. Vivian’s workshop was setting the bar too low. Or, to use Dr. Cowser’s analogy, we underestimated the disease and did not choose an aggressive enough treatment for stopping its spread. The work we did relied on an optimism that “appreciation for diversity” would grow and expand into vigilant activism and deliberate effort to reform anti-racist policies at every level of society. We were naïve in our thinking that getting white students to see how students of different racial or ethnic backgrounds could share with them something in common—liking the same movies or enjoying the same style music—but that, actually, the world was a better place by learning to respect and appreciate the things we did not hold in common. Further, we held a conviction that instilling in students an appreciation for diversity would result in a surge of conscience about the economic inequities that privilege white people in society over persons of color. It was too big of a leap. Though there are virtues in bringing white people gently out of their slumber and awakening them to an awareness of race and prejudice, it is not a strong enough antidote to systemic racism that is poisoning our world. Dr. Cowser is absolutely right! We cannot get rid of the cancer without a proper diagnosis and an accurate form of treatment.
I am grateful that I am at a place in my life and in my vocation where I can stand with colleagues and friends who are fully committed to getting rid of cancer. Through my work with the National Council of Churches I have a vehicle for awakening others to need for action, for confronting the truth that racism is ever-present, deeply rooted in American culture, and profoundly damaging to our communities, and for transforming the hearts, minds, and behaviors of people and structures that shape society (https://nationalcouncilofchurches.us/a-c-t-now-to-end-racism/). On October 1, 2020, I was proud to join my voice to the National Council of Churches statement denouncing white supremacy. (https://nationalcouncilofchurches.us/statement-on-white-supremacy/) I am resolved to work with people of all faiths, races, nations, as we live into the NCC Governing Board’s declaration that
Now is a time to imagine a bold new future, and a way forward that considers the best interests of all of God’s people. The pandemic is a crisis and all crises provide opportunities for change and renewal. People seek and need connection with one another and they desire to collaborate to build a new future that integrates justice and peace with health and well-being. We celebrate that and we are committed to participating as full partners in working for the beloved community. (The Governing Board of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA April 28, 2020).