We may lean on the wisdom of the witty British author Saki (H.H. Munro), who popularized the adage “a man is known by the company he keeps.” For this book, the “company” is Vivian’s good friend Andrew Young, a politician, diplomat and pastor. Young perhaps deserves as many hurrahs as his friend, Cordy Tindell Vivian.
In the foreword, Young aptly describes his fellow preacher, who died two weeks shy of his 96th birthday, as a skillful writer who first planned to be a journalist before life steered him onto a different path of service. In lamenting the fact that Vivian waited so long to pen his memoir, Young writes: “Maybe he was too busy fighting the good fight, or maybe he wanted to wait until he had it all figured out.”
Vivian was born in a rural Missouri farming community and grew up in Boonville, a Missouri town known as the site of a Civil War battle. Like many memoirs, this one begins with Vivian’s childhood. When he was 5 years old, a fire at his home forced his family to move. They settled in Macomb, Ill., for two reasons, Vivian wrote: “First, its public schools were not segregated. And second, it was home to a university — Western Illinois (WIU),” which Vivian’s grandmother hoped he would someday attend. And he did for a time.
Vivian began and honed his passion for nonviolent protest in Peoria, Ill., where he led the integration of Bishop’s Cafeteria. It was also there that he met Octavia Geans, “the love of my life,” who would become his wife of 58 years until her 2011 death. Together they had six children (plus Vivian’s first child from a prior marriage).
Through his many years of activism, Vivian worked in or founded an alphabet soup of civil rights acronyms, including SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee), CAT (Chicago Action Training), CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), NAACP, NCLC (Nashville Christian Leadership Conference), and UTC (Urban Training Center) in Chicago. Through “Vision,” an outgrowth of his work with SCLC, Vivian wrote: “We placed more than 700 young people into colleges, with scholarships.” Vision eventually morphed into the program known today as Upward Bound.
Throughout the sit-ins, wade-ins, marches, beatings and jailings while protesting, Vivian worked alongside many significant civil rights foot soldiers, including Diane Nash, Jim Lawson, John Lewis and Marion Barry in Nashville, where Vivian attended the American Baptist Theological Seminary (now American Baptist College). He traveled and protested with the Freedom Riders in Mississippi, where he was jailed in Jackson. In jail, “we conducted a Sunday service,” Vivian recalled. “We wrote up who was to do what and passed it through the bars to each other.” After a few days the jail became so crowded with protesters that they moved Vivian and many of the others to Mississippi’s notorious Parchman prison.
There is no disputing that Vivian waited a long time to begin “It’s in the Action,” a concise yet well-documented volume of his work as an activist, civil rights worker, writer and preacher. Vivian’s friend, writer Steve Fiffer, who collaborated with the author and completed the book after Vivian’s death, writes admiringly in the preface that Vivian “could tell a story or tell off a racist antagonist with equal poetry.”
Because of Vivian’s fading memory, many of the stories in “It’s in the Action” come from newspaper and magazine articles, interviews with people such as Taylor Branch and David Halberstam, the PBS series “Eyes on the Prize” and excerpts of video eulogies after the author’s death.
In her video recollection of Vivian, Oprah Winfrey, an alum of the Upward Bound program, said, “We are better, because he existed.”
Wanda S. Lloyd, a retired newspaper editor, is the author of “Coming Full Circle: From Jim Crow to Journalism,” and co-editor of “Meeting at the Table: African American Women Write on Race, Culture and Community.” She writes from Savannah, Ga.
It’s in the Action
Memories of a Nonviolent Warrior
NewSouth Books. 174 pp. $25.95