The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Black preacher, a White sheriff and the punch in the face that put Selma on the map

C.T. Vivian prays in front of Sheriff Jim Clark on the courthouse steps in Selma, Ala., on Feb. 5, 1965. Ten days later, Clark would punch Vivian in the face at the same spot. (Horace Cort/AP)
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Selma.

Those five letters evoke indelible images: a column of silent protesters kneeling at the Edmund Pettus Bridge; Sheriff Jim Clark in a white helmet, holding a cattle prod; a young John Lewis in a trench coat being beaten over the head; Martin Luther King Jr. arm-in-arm with other leaders as they finally lead the marchers to Montgomery.

The voting rights push in Selma was one of the defining moments of the civil rights movement. But before Selma was Selma, it was another local front in the movement struggling for national media attention.

How Selma finally broke through is recounted in civil rights leader C.T. Vivian’s posthumous memoir, “It’s in the Action: Memories of a Nonviolent Warrior,” which comes out March 9 and was co-written with Steve Fiffer. Vivian died last year at 95.

Vivian was raised in Illinois, but living north of the Mason-Dixon Line didn’t mean he didn’t experience segregation. In fact, Vivian participated in lunch-counter sit-ins in Peoria, Ill., as early as 1947, more than a decade before the tactic gained momentum in the civil rights movement.

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While in seminary in Nashville, he met nonviolence advocate Jim Lawson and trained alongside other future leaders such as Lewis and Diane Nash. He participated in some of the most successful actions of the civil rights movement, including the Nashville lunch-counter sit-ins and the Freedom Rides, before becoming a lieutenant in King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

Vivian was tall and lanky where King was short and stocky; his features were sharp where King’s were rounded, and his style of nonviolent confrontation was often more biting than poetic. But that doesn’t mean the men didn’t get along: King, legendary for his style of preaching, once called Vivian “the greatest preacher to ever live.”

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SCLC sent Vivian to Selma in late 1964 to see whether local Black residents and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which was already organizing there, would “welcome our involvement,” he writes. Of course they wanted to register voters, but they had another motivation, too.

“And let’s be honest: Selma was home to a virulent, racist sheriff, Jim Clark … [who] was almost certain to respond less than peacefully to our peaceful initiatives. We needed a conflict that would demonstrate our plight. ... Such a response, we hoped, would sicken Northerners as Birmingham had and motivate an already sympathetic President Johnson to expedite voting rights legislation.”

Over the next few weeks, Vivian helped organize several actions where Black residents attempted to register to vote. Clark blocked them; hundreds were arrested, but that didn’t have much of an effect on national media coverage.

Then came Feb. 15, 1965. Again, Vivian led a group of prospective voters to the courthouse steps. Again, Clark blocked them. And this time, there were television cameras.

Vivian decided to “go for his gut,” he writes, asking Clark: “What do you tell your wife at night? What do you tell your children?”

Clark turned around, so Vivian followed up with: “You can turn your back on me, but you cannot turn your back on the idea of justice. You can turn your back now and you can keep the club in your hand, but you cannot beat down justice.”

For several minutes, he continued the verbal jabs, inches from Clark’s face, without a response. Then, Clark finally asked him whether he lived in the county, perhaps relying on the old stance that civil rights leaders were just “outside agitators” whipping otherwise happy Black locals.

Vivian said no, but that he represented the residents behind him who were being prevented from voting.

“Is what I’m saying true?” he called to the crowd.

“Yeah!” they shouted.

“Is it what you think and what you believe?” he asked.

“Yeah!” they responded again.

And that was it: Clark ordered the cameramen to turn off their cameras, and his deputies started pushing the crowd back. As for Vivian, well, Clark punched him in the face, sending him falling back against the courthouse steps.

“I was hurting,” Vivian writes, “but brushed myself off and rose quickly. I remembered the training I’d received from Jim Lawson in Nashville. We can never allow violence to defeat nonviolence. You have to resist the impulse to turn in the other direction and leave. You have to stay.”

Vivian was soon arrested. And at least one cameraman hadn’t followed the sheriff’s instructions and captured the whole thing.

Soon, the footage was airing on the evening news, garnering the national attention civil rights leaders had been hoping for. It was a defining moment that put the protests in Selma on the map. The next month, when authorities attacked Lewis and hundreds of others on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the whole world was watching.

Civil rights leader and diplomat Andrew Young later told a journalist: “No one gave C.T. any instructions to do that. It took a lot of courage to get in Jim Clark’s face. But if he had not taken that blow in Selma, we would not have had the Voting Rights Act.”

As Vivian was led away in handcuffs that day, he didn’t know any of that would happen. And he endured more than one blow that day; in a “rinky-dink” elevator on the way to his jail cell, an officer “who looked like he should have been playing for the Chicago Bears” punched him again. Vivian had been able to cover his head with his hands before taking the blow, perhaps protecting him from a life-threatening injury, “but I couldn’t feel the ends of my fingers for quite some time,” he writes.

It was worth it, Vivian writes.

“It does not matter whether you are beaten; that’s a secondary matter. The only important thing is that you reach the conscience of those who are with you and of anyone watching—both the so-called enemy, and those who are preparing the battle, and anyone else who may be watching.”

Read more Retropolis:

John Lewis nearly died on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Now it may be renamed for him.

A White mother went to Alabama to fight for civil rights. The Klan killed her for it.

The brave, forgotten Kansas lunch-counter sit-in that helped change America

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