Friday, July 17, 2020

RIP, Reverend Vivian

I learned this morning that Reverend C. T. Vivian passed away last night at 95 years old. He never got (nor I suspect craved) the public acknowledgement (from white America, at least) that John Lewis or other leaders of the civil rights movement in the late '50s and early '60s got, but he was a towering influence in many ways and a remarkable human being.

In the late '90s, I was working for Nortel Networks, a Canadian-based high tech company responsible for the digital switching revolution that really allowed for the growth of the internet. We had a distribution plant up in Creedmoor, NC, between RTP and the Virginia state line. The plant director realized there were racial tensions on the floor that were disrupting operations and he brought in Rev. Vivian's consulting company to hold a handful of two-day seminars that proved to be so successful, management extended them to the main offices/manufacturing floor in Research Triangle Park.

I grew up in about as un-bigoted a household as you could find in Nashville in the '60. My elementary school was over 60% African-American - when they instituted busing after my 5th grade year, I got bused to a whiter school. There's nothing about that that ensures that I would not be prejudiced of course, but I was sure that I was not.

I got signed up for the seminar and viewed it as a couple of days off of work (and maybe a chance to feel a little superior to my fellow white folks who would undoubtedly learn some painful lessons). Yeah, not so much.

Rev. Vivian gently and insistently led us toward truths we hadn't considered and that I think a lot of people are only now starting to understand. That the problems of being black in America didn't end with the Civil War or with the Civil Rights Act or with the end of Jim Crow (or now, later, after having a black President). That "I don't see color" is a bullshit statement. 

The seminar was personal, not about societal problems like red-lining and hiring preferences etc. It was about *me* - each of us as individuals and how we feel in our heart of hearts and what we could do about it. It was intensely personal. That's a long, arduous path to take to change the world, but he spent decades doing it one small group at a time and doing it well.

After the first day, I called my dad. My grandfather (an unfortunately racist man) drove a Nashville city bus during the formation of the SCLC and NCLC and the sit-in movement with students from Fisk University and American Baptist College, where Rev, Vivian was an older seminary student. Dad was right out of high school and driving a bread truck and while John Lewis and others were sitting in at a restaurant (while the manager turned the heat on full blast or sprayed them with bug spray), Dad might have been in the back, pulling bread back onto the truck because there wasn't going to be anything sold that day.

I made sure I sat with Rev. Vivian at lunch the second day, to share a little background and get his take on, well, those days I guess. He was gracious, engaging and funny. At the end of the second day, he had us line up and he went down the line, shaking hands and having a quiet word with each of us. 

In the days and weeks that followed, I fought back internally against some of what I learned about myself during those two days. Thankfully I mostly lost that fight and realized that there were unlearnings that I had to do. Some of that continues to this day and I hope that the past few months of racial reckoning is doing the same for others. 

It's ok to consider yourself to be not a racist. I still do (but I'm more not a racist today than I was before that seminar, if that makes sense). It is probably not ok to consider yourself "not a racist" without some ongoing self-reflection and self-assessment. 

All of this is to say that I am a better person for having met Rev. Vivian. I think about him and the seminar often and the world will miss his grace, his wit, his compassion, his love  and his strength. Rest in Peace.