As one who over the years has been interested in documenting both well-known people with Chattanooga connections and civil rights history, I was surprised I never realized one of the black civil rights giants had actually spent time here.
Not until I saw an editorial about the Rev.
C.T. Vivian and his time in Chattanooga in last Sunday’s Times Free Press did I realize this man who was considered one of the most significant leaders in the mid-20th
century fight for racial equality called Chattanooga home.
And that is in addition to the fact that I had mentioned his name in a story I wrote back in 1993 for the Chattanooga News-Free Press on the local ties to the famous 1963 civil rights march on Washington, D.C.
The problem was that I had not heard of him in 1993, and I did not realize he was or would be a well-known civil rights minister after 1963. And I was not sure I was that familiar with him a few days back, either, before his death on July 17, the same day as the popular U.S. Rep. John Lewis, whose continued high-profile work made him more familiar to today’s citizenry.
But this man who helped integrate the public places in Nashville through the sit-in movement and took part in the Freedom rides to integrate buses traveling across state lines had spent a couple of years here in the early 1960s before going to work for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
He went on to be involved in other civil rights-focused projects in later years and in 2013 was presented with a pretty prestigious award -- the Presidential Medal of Freedom -- by President Barack Obama during a White House ceremony.
After seeing the nice detail on his life here last Sunday in the editorial, apparently by Clint Cooper, I wanted to see what else I could find.
With the help of Suzette Raney in the local history section of the Chattanooga Public Library, I was able to find that the first year he was listed in the Chattanooga City Directory was in 1962, which means he could have arrived as early as 1961 after the information was gathered.
Listed as Cordy T. Vivian, he was the pastor at Cosmopolitan Community Church, which was then located at 1624 E. 3rd St. He had replaced the Rev. G.S. Groom.
The church building has apparently been torn down, as that address would now be a parking area of the Hamilton County Juvenile Court.
The Rev. Vivian, who was then in only his late 30s, lived with his wife, Octavia, and family at 924 Fort Wood Street, Ms. Raney said. The home, located a little west and up the hill from Central Avenue and just past some UTC Greek houses, appears to be the same bungalow-style cottage that would have been there in the early 1960s.
His wife at the time was a welfare worker with the Tennessee Department of Public Welfare.
Also while they were in Chattanooga, his wife gave birth to their youngest son, Albert. They had to use the black hospital, Carver Memorial Hospital, on what was then West 9th Street along the slope of Cameron Hill before it was torn down in 1962 during urban renewal and freeway construction efforts.
Erlanger Hospital at that time was still in its last months of being segregated, and the discovery made Rev. Vivian push for integration at Erlanger.
He was also active with voting efforts for black people while here. In my 1993 story, I referenced a 1963 story saying a busload of black citizens from Chattanooga led by the Rev. Vivian and the Rev. W.H Thompson of New Emanuel Baptist Church went to Washington.
Some 35 local residents had left the Tennessee Voters Council office on East Ninth Street (now East M.L. King Jr. Boulevard) the day before the famous “March on Washington” event that culminated with Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech.
Mr. Vivian’s work in the area of voting was why Dr. King asked him to become the director of affiliates (or chapters) with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which pushed for black civil rights through non-violent protests and demonstrations.
I happened to find a little more about Rev. Vivian’s time in Chattanooga through a more-than-four-hour video interview he did with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Taylor Branch in 2011 for the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
At about the 2-hour-and-50-minute mark in the interview that is available online, he talks a little about his work in Chattanooga and how it led to Dr. King’s attention and eventual recruitment of him.
He told Mr. Branch that he came to Chattanooga to pastor and build a church and its membership like he had done in Nashville, although the Nashville church was apparently not the situation he wanted.
He said after arriving here, he met a pastor of another church a block away, and they struck up a dialogue about their interests in publishing church newspapers regarding their causes and their efforts to join with fellow publisher Jesse Hill of Atlanta.
The other local pastor had good statistical information regarding black voting in Chattanooga, but the Rev. Vivian said the man was not so well liked, and the mobilizing efforts had not gone forward.
With his successful efforts with the sit-in movement and other efforts in Nashville, Mr. Vivian became a natural leader here of that effort. He also saw from the stats that Chattanooga’s black population was ripe to begin contributing more to electing local officials more responsive to the black community.
“I said, ‘What are we standing still for?’ ” Rev. Vivian told interviewer Taylor Branch. “So we got together and began to plan real action. Before it was over, we ended up electing three-fifths of the City (Commission).”
He might have been talking about the 1963 election, when the City Commission included Mayor Ralph Kelley, and commissioners George McInturff, James “Bookie” Tuner, Dean Petersen and A.L. “Chunk” Bender.
He actually said their mayor of choice did not get elected, but, unless he was referring to another city election, Mayor Kelley was considered in hindsight a popular and responsive mayor among the black community for that time.
Rev. Vivian in the interview also brought out an interesting-and-honest point – that it was common at that time to pay blacks, who comprised 20 percent of the city voting total, to vote for someone.
He decided to encourage the local black citizens to take advantage of that, but in a way that benefited them more.
“My basic speech was that they’ve been making a fool out of you by buying you as though you were slaves, so let’s make a fool out of them,” he told Mr. Branch. “Take their money and keep it. They can’t pay you what they owe you, but vote like you want to.
“It was that kind of thing that helped us win.”
Rev. Vivian was not around long enough to see it, but black Chattanoogans would begin to serve on the City Commission with John Franklin beginning in 1971. And two decades later they would begin serving on the City Council in multiple numbers after the form of government was changed by court order to allow for representation by districts.
Those early 1960s efforts as well as his efforts organizing black voters throughout Tennessee while in Chattanooga soon caught the attention of SCLC staff member Dorothy Cotton, who told Dr. King about him. As a result, Mr. Vivian soon began working with the SCLC in Atlanta.
“That's how Martin knew how influential I could be,” Rev. Vivian proudly said of his time in Chattanooga in his interview conducted when he was in his mid-80s.
His recent funeral did not get as much attention as did Congressman Lewis’, and his time in Chattanooga is little documented in biographical sketches compared to his overall work.
But Chattanooga can take pride that this respected man who stood up for racial justice and tried to make the country more whole was for at least a brief time a resident contributing positively to the town’s gradual transformation.