Getting Back to MLK's Agenda

By Chris Pepus

Few understand activism better than Dr. C.T. Vivian, who played a central role in many of the most important civil rights campaigns of the 1950s and '60s. An early member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he went to prison in Mississippi for participating in a 1961 Freedom Ride, and was one of the leaders of the Selma voting rights campaign in 1965. He is probably best known for his confrontation with Selma's Sheriff Jim Clark, during which he protested Clark's use of force against demonstrators. The sheriff responded by hitting him in front of television news crews. Bleeding from his mouth, Vivian continued to upbraid Clark until the sheriff ordered him arrested. The assault was one of many televised outrages that helped pass the Voting Rights Act, but Vivian also sees the event in terms of the personal impact of Gandhi and King's philosophy of nonviolent direct action. "I would never run from anybody. That's one reason why I love nonviolence."

About as dramatic as the Selma campaign was the effort to integrate public accommodations in Nashville in 1960, which included in a march on City Hall by 4,000 demonstrators. At City Hall, Vivian and fellow activist Diane Nash pressed the mayor to commit to integration. The mayor broke with essentially every other southern officeholder by agreeing that segregation was morally wrong and promising to help end it. The downtown lunch counters at the heart of the controversy were quickly integrated, an event that helped spur the campaign to integrate the rest of the city. Was Vivian shocked by the mayor's response? "That it actually happened shocked me. I had to cut him off right quick and show him that he wouldn't get away with just making a nice speech."

Victories against such overwhelming odds have contributed to Dr. Vivian's infectious optimism. At age 79, he continues to be active in SCLC, while maintaining a heavy schedule of talks at universities and progressive organizations. Vivian is currently upbeat about American activism, despite the repressive mood prevailing in the county. He sees the recent demonstrations against the policies of the World Bank and World Trade Organization as evidence that people are beginning to understand that poverty in other, low-wage countries contributes to poverty here. "We have to see to it that the 'developing countries' develop," he remarks.

A key theme of Vivian's talks these days is that the public has received an incomplete picture of Dr. King's activism. He notes that politicians and media figures are happy to discuss King's efforts to end legal segregation, but ignore his views on economic justice. Given the powerful interests at play, Vivian does not believe that omission is a coincidence. "They want to forget," he says, his voice sharpening. For him, the starting point for activism today is King and SCLC's 1968 Poor People's Campaign to redistribute the nation's wealth. The campaign reached out to all ethnic groups, including impoverished southern whites, and managed to bring some whites into the fold, both before and after King's death. However, 1968 is remembered as the year that the Republicans "southern strategy" of coded racism came to fruition, and Richard Nixon split the southern electoral vote with George Wallace. Even so, Dr. Vivian is quick to point out that blacks and poor whites have not always been at odds in the South. Lower-class whites were often prominent in southern anti-slavery groups, partly for humanitarian reasons and partly because they realized that slavery depressed wages for free workers. In a pattern often repeated, the plantation aristocracy crushed those organizations. "One of the things that kept poor whites poor was the division between black and white," he explains. "The bankers [in the northeastern US] wanted it to happen, because the South was basically a colony anyway."

Dr. King and his successors in the movement have always sought to ally with poor whites, but can progressive groups overcome GOP racial politics? Vivian cites the issue of corporate welfare as a potential rallying point for working-class people of all ethnic groups and regions. The spate of deregulation, corporate subsidies, and tax-breaks implemented to attract industry have created a situation in which working people "have to give up everything to have a job in their town. You put all that together, doc, and what you've got is the old plantation system." In the near future, Dr. Vivian expects to see SCLC take more of a leading role on questions of economic inequality, especially with regard to the push for a higher minimum wage. "We have to understand that what we're talking about is Martin's agenda."

Chris Pepus is a writer in St. Louis.

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