It took until February 1965 for the Alabama voting rights movement to spread from Selma to less populated environs. Martin Luther King visited both Perry and Wilcox counties, appearing even at little Gees Bend, encouraging the tenant farmers not to give up now. In one demonstration in Perry, seven hundred students from SCLC were arrested and incarcerated like cattle in a makeshift stockade with brutal living conditions. Local organizers called Selma asking for help, specifically requesting C. T. Vivian, veteran of the struggle with Sheriff Clark. Vivian had become a giant in the movement.
C.T. was at first reluctant to go, having just been released from jail. But he stood that Sunday night in the pulpit of Zion Chapel Church Marion and fired up a packed church with his eloquence. The church was filled with determined, angry people who, angered by the arrest of their children, were determined to march from the clapboard church to the city jail. C.T. admired their bravery, but he knew that they were on a perilous course. Night marches were rare; the night belonged to the Klan, though in the Black Belt, Klansmen didn’t need sheets to cover their identity. The assumption was that even the local law enforcement officers were free to do whatever they wanted, acting upon the orders of Governor Wallace.
Enflamed by C.T. Vivian’s sermon, marchers streamed out of the little church anyway. When police chief T. O. Harris ordered them to return to the church, they knelt to pray. The police attacked. Many were assaulted, knocked to the ground, pursued through the dark streets. An NBC reporter, Richard Valeriani, was also beaten.
It was for the freedom seekers, the last straw. The rage engendered this night was the decisive prelude to the historic, massive march on Selma across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7.
For Christians in Alabama, white and black, this is our history, our inheritance. As a relative newcomer to the church in Alabama, I believe it is important that we claim this past as power for the present. The Holy Spirit, in countless little churches all across our state worked miracles, defeated Satan, and won a new people. What a resource for the living of the Christian life, to have these living reminders among us. We’re not there yet, but in our better moments, we are on the way. And every time we take one little step against the great sin of American racism, we are moving closer to Christ. That’s but one reason why we are gathering at Clearbranch on January 6. C.T. Vivian will be there to encourage us, along with Tony Campolo. We’ve still got great work to do, and we’ve got a great place in which to do it.
Thank God for a church that keeps holding up before us what Jesus expects of us. Thank God for a church that keeps convicting us of our sin, keeps holding before us redemption. I’ve met people ho have been attracted to one of our congregations because there people are visibly dealing with this continuing American dilemma of racial justice. I’ve also met people who are no longer in our church because a congregation is avoiding or denying this sin. The church at its best is God-given free space in which to deal with and overcome our sin.
Years later, C.T. Vivian was back in Marion and looked at Zion Chapel Church again. He was stunned that the church was so small, little more than a clapboard box. Could it have been the same church that ignited such a liberating conflagration? That tiny church?
No, C.T., you are taller than you appear and that little church is a great cathedral. All of us who attempt to walk the way of Jesus in Alabama today, travel in your lengthened, encouraging shadow. Jesus fully intends to rock our world, to purge us of our sin, including the sin of racism, through preachers like C.T., through churches like Zion Chapel.This is the way this God works miracles.
William H. Willimon
I got this account of C.T. Vivian at Marion from chapter 17 of Frye Gaillard's amazing book, Cradle of Freedom: Alabama and the Movement that Changed America (The University of Alabama Press, 2004).