Vivian’s visit coincides with the exhibition “And the Struggle Continues: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Fight for Social Change,” which includes over 150 rare books Vivian donated to the SCLC archive housed at Emory’s MARBL.
President Barack Obama awarded Vivian the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is the nation’s highest civilian honor, at a ceremony in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday.
Vivian is best known for an incident when Sheriff Jim Clark punched Vivian on the courthouse steps of Selma, Ala. in 1965 as Vivian tried to escort a group of African-Americans inside to register to vote, according to a Nov. 13 Emory press release.
At yesterday’s event, Andra Gillespie, associate professor of political science at Emory, interviewed Vivian about his life and political experiences and moderated questions from the crowd.
Vivian pointed to several key figures and institutions that influenced him during his youth.
“I was inspired at home, at church and by everybody who talked about the issue of race,” Vivian said. “I didn’t see intense suffering, but I saw that most black people were.”
Vivian detailed his time in Nashville during the heart of the civil rights movement when he served as, what Gillespie called, an “elder statesman” to the youth within the movement.
“[White people] didn’t mind killing you in the South, whereas they would ignore you in the North,” Vivian said. “Most of the youth were scared about how their parents would be treated if they spoke out.”
The lack of training in politics held back most young African-American protesters, something Vivian said he gladly fixed.
“None of them had ever been trained in politics. Nobody understood the power of having a voice and had never been able to talk back until now,” Vivian said. “I had been ‘freed’ for a long time and enjoyed being able to speak out and help others do so.”
Gillespie noted Vivian’s storied involvement with the civil rights movement. According to the press release, Vivian not only served on the SCLC executive staff alongside Martin Luther King Jr. but also took part in sit-ins and Freedom Rides.
“What Martin Luther King, Jr. and the non-violent movement did for [African-Americans] is that for the first time we could say no,” Vivian said. “If we didn’t like it, we could go demonstrate. It made life miserable for both blacks and whites, but we were happy to be miserable.”
Non-violence played a key role in the civil rights movement, and Vivian said he feels that it can be the factor to change America.
“Non-violence is basic to restructuring the nation,” Vivian said. “If America was to be loving, truthful and just, the world would follow.”
Vivian said church provided a source of strength and courage in the face of violent protest.
“All of us went to church, and that’s where our sense of right and wrong came from,” Vivian said. “We knew the difference between those that hated us and liked it and those that hated us that didn’t know any better.”
Gillespie said it was an honor to be in the same room as someone with such a storied past.
“I treasured every moment of wisdom Vivian shared today,” Gillespie said. “It’s a quality example of passing down information from one generation to another.”
Randall Burkett, curator of the Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library (MARBL) African American Collections, said the partnership between Vivian and Emory was a natural one, given Vivian’s love of rare books, poetry and social justice.
In addition to serving as a Baptist preacher, Vivian founded or co-founded several civil rights and anti-racism organizations, including the Center for Democratic Renewal and Upward Bound — an initiative Vivian started in Alabama in the 1960s to prepare African American high school students for college and help them secure scholarships, according to the press release.
Vivian said receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom has created a chance for his message’s platform to grow even larger.
“This is a chance to create a bigger audience,” Vivian said. “It is a chance to fix the struggle we face to make each one of us a better person.”