By Alicia East
Today, while the world is remembering C.T. Vivian’s important contributions to the American Civil Rights Movement, I’m remembering the character of the man who made me feel important.
I felt like Forrest Gump.
I was no older than 25, with no credentials to my name, when I landed myself with Dr. Vivian— first in a sunny courtyard at a nursing home, next in his living room with Obama ’08 campaign signs in the background, and finally, with reporters in our face while I hugged him on stage at the iconic Brown Chapel.
That first time, he was dressed in a 3 piece suit and tie–appropriate for the camera crew he was expecting. I showed up with a notepad and a friend. He had asked to meet at his wife’s nursing home since he visited her there every day. We sat down in the sunny courtyard together and offered to move to a shady spot. He said, “Don’t worry about me. You’re the ones who are going to get burned out here.”
We did. But a sunburn was a small price to pay.
You know that thing that happens when you tell the same story enough times where your mouth is there—reciting words by muscle memory, but your heart and mind are elsewhere because they’re no longer needed for the thousandth retelling? I had interviewed civil rights icons before and often, it was that way.
This was not. We may as well have been at a brewery–eating onion rings and sipping beer–him at 84 years old with his leg thrown over the edge of the chair, making us laugh.
I remember some of his stories, but mostly, I remember him. When we left, he brought us to his wife’s room and he sat down next to her, rubbing her hand and telling us about her, even though there was little indication she could hear or understand him. She may not have been able to, but we did. He told us how much the women did in the movement—those whose names are unknown. How it wasn’t possible for him to do what he did without his wife doing what she did.
He then led us out and greeted each staff person by name—asking about their families.
We asked for a second meeting because we didn’t get through all of the questions we were sent with. I don’t know if we even got through one.
He agreed to meet with us again and that second time, we were in his home on a rare day that his wife could leave the nursing home. We brought her flowers and she sat, asleep in her wheelchair.
I started in on the questions. They were predictable. I’d even seen him answer them in interviews before. He fell asleep. This was not the man we’d met the first time! He was bored. I was bored! He’d earned the right to sleep through uninspired questions. After trying to tactfully wake him up by clearing my throat and asking the question loudly, I finally said to hell with whatever obligation I felt to get through the list of questions my connection had sent us.
I started asking what I really wanted to know. I asked him about the Obama campaign. I asked him if he ever felt afraid. I asked him what motivated him when it felt like things may not change. And there was the guy from the courtyard again—lively and engaging. FUN.
At the end of our time, I grabbed his hand and tried to communicate what I couldn’t find the words to say. Dr. Vivian looked at us and told us how much he appreciated the time with us. We blinked, confused, and he reiterated, “See, you don’t even know how special you are.”
It was totally unearned. He was the one with the name, with the place in history books, with an association with Dr. King and President Obama. He was the one with the courage to speak truth to power and the integrity to do it both with authority and love. He was the one who sat with us for hours, with no bitterness to note, talking about the world he helped changed.
But he acted like he was the one who was honored to spend time with us. And at a time when I was very discouraged with where my life was at—halfway through my only full year of being a high school teacher—it was something I really needed. Something that fueled me for a long time.
“You want a picture with me? I want a picture with you .”
When I heard he would be speaking at Selma’s yearly commemoration of Bloody Sunday, I decided to go even though all my friends were going somewhere else. I wrote a letter appreciating him—not just for what he did for the movement, but for his character. My only plan was to look for a chance to give it to him. He was the keynote speaker: I was not going to be the only one who wanted a moment of his time. I didn’t know if it would happen: I just knew I was going to try.
I waited in line to enter Brown Chapel. Obama had spoken there as he was campaigning 3 years earlier. Jesse Jackson, Rev. Al Sharpton, and many other figures of the movement make it an annual event. That means there’s a ton of security. Someone like me is never guaranteed entrance. I was able to get in because of our association with Sheyann Webb Christburg (Dr. King’s “youngest freedom fighter).”
There’s always a point at these services where everyone who is “someone” has a chance to stand up and recognize their organization or congregation or political status. I am the head of exactly zero organizations and have equal interest (zero) in speaking in front of crowds, but, because of encouragement from two of my mentors, I recognized my chance to do what I came to do. I would’ve been much more comfortable trying to find him after the service. I didn’t have these words at the time, but I certainly felt the sentiment: “I am not throwing away my shot!”
The time came for people to say who they represented and some politicians stood up. I went over to the podium and stood a little separate. The lady who was running that part of the service was clearly the gatekeeper and her demeanor told me she didn’t want that portion to go on too long. She moved to block the remaining people, but I moved, too, and took a place right next to her.
The person before me returned to her seat and the gatekeeper impatiently waved me to the podium. I didn’t have a plan, but had brought the envelope up with me. I said, “I’m Alicia Sample and I came up here because I had the opportunity to meet with Dr. Vivian twice,” then I turned toward him on stage and said, “and I never got to tell you how much that meant to me. I really don’t like speaking in front of crowds, but I’m up here only because Dr. Vivian, I adore you and I was hoping to give you something.”
I held the envelope out to the guy closest to me on stage, but instead, Jesse Jackson stood up and directed me toward C.T. Vivian, who stood to receive me. I shook his hand and hugged him and he said, “Bless you.” I certainly felt blessed.
There were cameras in our faces and I hardly even knew what was happening until after I sat down. My voice was solid and clear when I was up there, but when I sat, my hands were shaking so bad I could hardly text a few words to the mentors who had encouraged me to take that moment.
As I walked back to my seat, the gatekeeper smiled warmly and said, “Thank you, that was great.” Several other people shook my hand and thanked me as I walked back too. After the service, I went up and asked if I could have a picture. Dr. Vivian said, “You want a picture with me? I want a picture with you .”
I really felt like he meant it. And today, as I remember him, I think about the world he helped create, of course. I appreciate that, but it’s not what’s making me cry as I type. It’s the character I see behind it all. He took the physical blows in the movement, but they didn’t take him. He fought not in spite of the fact that he was kind and gentle, but because of it. And he was often the most “important” person in the room, but made everyone else feel they were.