Rev. Dr. C.T. Vivian regales packed auditorium with stories, insight
By Kathleen Brady Shea, Managing Editor, The Times
The 1,250-seat auditorium of Coatesville Area Senior High was filled to near-capacity when word came that Rev. Dr. C.T. Vivian, the celebrated civil rights icon scheduled to speak at 6 p.m., would be late.
An air of expectant excitement had pervaded the room, and people seemed to take the news in stride that inclement weather at the Atlanta airport had delayed the acclaimed 88-year-old Freedom Rider. Coatesville Schools Superintendent Richard Como suggested that the wait might be fitting since freedom was also a long time coming.
Less than an hour later, Rev. Vivian received a standing ovation when he entered the room. “That’s so kind of you – especially since you had to wait so long,” he said in response. Then he explained that even though he traveled by car from Philadelphia, he virtually flew, courtesy of his eager driver. “I turned on the light so I could see myself die,” he joked.
More than two hours later, the delay was a distant memory, replaced by an infusion of energy and inspiration. Members of the audience said the program – sponsored by the school district, the Coatesville NAACP, the Coatesville Historical Commission, and the Lilies and Pearls Cotillion – gave them a special – and historic – experience.
Not only did Rev. Vivian have a lot to say, but Coatesville-area representatives also did, ensuring that he felt welcome and appreciated. Dr. Tonya Thames Taylor, president of Coatesville Area NAACP and a CASD school board director, pointed out that Rev. Vivian repeatedly risked his life to secure freedoms that exist today.
His extensive civil-rights history included participation in the first Freedom Rides in 1961 when activists travelled by bus from Washington, D.C., to southern states to challenge segregation. He worked side-by-side with Dr. Martin Luther King and has continued to promote freedom for all. “The only way you can be fully human is to be fully free,” he said.
Chester County Commissioner Terence Farrell extended personal thanks to Rev. Vivian for making such inroads – efforts that helped pave the way for Farrell to become the county’s first black county commissioner. And Coatesville City Council President David C. Collins tied Rev. Vivian’s rich past to that of Coatesville, which he described as standing “on the precipice of change.” He even invited Dr. Vivian to join the revitalization effort and “buy some property.”
State Sen. Andy Dinniman, who presented Rev. Vivian with a proclamation from the Pennsylvania Senate, lamented the fact that while Rev. Vivian’s freedom-fighting was being honored, other battles continue. He said a new abolitionist movement has started to end the human trafficking that is enslaving more than 100,000 a year, mainly young girls who are forced into prostitution. He said Senate Bill 75, which he co-sponsored, would improve the enforceability of Pennsylvania’s human trafficking laws.
Rev. Dan Williams, pastor of New Life in Christ Fellowship Church, began the question-and-answer session, a well-received effort that prompted Rev. Vivian to expound on recurring themes of love, nonviolence, and education.
“To be able to love, though hated, is a very difficult thing, but it’s a saving thing and something you pass on, generation by generation,” Rev. Vivian said. “It takes radical love to defeat radical evil … If we really all loved one another, nobody would be hungry. If we really all loved one another, everybody would have an education.”
“There’s no greater love than what black women have given to us,” he said, crediting his late wife – “the best thing that ever happened to me” – for his achievements. He also praised the mothers and grandmothers who understand “if they don’t love you, you’re not going to make it … “Somewhere you’ve got to be taught what decency is. If you’re not taught it, it’s hard to stand up for it.”
Asked about the current status of the civil-rights movement, Rev. Vivian said, “We’re not as good as we like to think we are as a nation.” He questioned why ministers weren’t doing more to stop people from harboring violence. “There’s nobody in this country more spiritual than black people,” he said.
After the warm-up from Rev. Williams, Rev. Vivian was just getting started, a revelation that delighted the dozen questioners from the audience. “I can talk all day; I love this stuff,” he said.
One man wanted to know how Rev. Vivian prepared himself for confrontations that could have killed him. “You don’t really think it’s going to be your last walk,” Rev. Vivian responded. “You come to the point where it doesn’t matter …Every one of us is born to help each other be free.”
Another man wanted to know how Rev. Vivian felt about gay rights. “Every human being needs to be treated like a person,” he said. “They’re human; they belong here.”
Asked about Bayard Rustin, a civil rights activist and namesake of a West Chester high school, Rev. Vivian described him as “one of the brightest guys we had,” someone who had started freedom-fighting 20 years before anyone else and “suffered more” since he was not only black, but also openly gay.
A poised 11-year-old girl said she was learning about slavery and the Underground Railroad in school and was confused about how it all got started. Rev. Vivian complimented her on the question, suggesting that neither he nor the many ministers in the room had a definitive answer. But he added: “Don’t stop asking those questions.”
After the Q&A session ended, many in the crowd headed for the stage rather than the exit. There, for about 45 minutes, Rev. Vivian graciously adopted the role of rock star, signing autographs and posing for photos.
“This is good stuff,” proclaimed Crystal Lowery, watching as Rev. Vivian laughed and joked with his admiring audience. “This is just so great.”
Terry Lavender brought five children ranging in age from 4 to 18 to the program, and even though the youngest two boys fell asleep in his lap toward the end, Lavender said it was well worth it. “I’m so glad I came – and so glad I brought all of them,” he said.
Ayanna Holmes, a 16-year-old CASH student, was accompanied by her mother, Jackie Green Holmes. She said she had learned about some of Rev. Vivian’s activities in social studies and was excited “to hear about all the things he did and how he felt about them.”
Labeling the program “phenomenal,” Barbara Taliaferro, a teacher in the district, said she was particularly impressed with Rev. Vivian’s emphasis on education. “I’m very pleased that I came,” she said, admitting that some earlier snowflakes had almost deterred her.
Camille Holley-Sheppard, who teaches 10th-grade English at Coatesville’s 9-10 Center, said she found Rev. Vivian’s words educational as well as inspiring. “I think every person here left with a feeling of making this a better place,” she said.
Rev. Vivian was equally enthusiastic about the evening. “This was one of the most wonderful crowds,” he said, adding that he also enjoyed the program’s format. “I always want to hear what people want to know,” he said.
Thames-Taylor, one of the organizers, said even on her best day with her best prayers, she could not have envisioned such a successful event, one that kicks off the 75th anniversary of the Coatesville NAACP. “This absolutely exceeded all of my expectations,” she said. “I’m thrilled with the way it turned out.”