PhD Alumna Shares Reflections on Life Changing Encounter with Civil Rights Icon C. T. Vivian

Nonprofit and Organizational Leadership Development Leader, PhD in Leadership and Change alumna, and Advisory Team Member for the J.W. Fanning Institute for Leadership Development, Dr. Janet Rechtman recently shared deep reflections of her life changing events in the wake of the passing of influential civil rights icons John Lewis and C.T. Vivian.

1995.  I’m 47 years old, enrolled in the 25th anniversary class of Leadership Atlanta.  We are an elite and diverse group of 75 or so men and women who hold important roles in business, government, faith, and nonprofit communities. 

Founded in the summer of 1969 as a formal initiative to address the city’s growing need for well-informed, committed leaders, Leadership Atlanta held inclusivity as a core principle.  By the time I attended this principle had taken the form of an intense focus on the very black and white issues of racism in Atlanta, with an initial 2-day immersion in a race awareness workshop led by Dr. C.T. Vivian.

That experience changed my life. 

A red diaper baby born to progressive parents, I had always had a commitment to racial equality and inclusivity that took different forms in different times of my life.  As a young girl in the only Jewish family in a small town in central Alabama, I was blithely unaware of the privilege derived from my whiteness; at the same time, I was equally unaware of how my whiteness might affect the people of color I encountered in those days of Jim Crow segregation.  I regularly crossed the color line with impunity even though my black counterparts were not able to do the reverse.

My first day at high school in Atlanta was also the first day the school was desegregated.  Six brave young black people, accompanied by police officers, joined the 1,100 white kids attending a school named for the revered journalist Henry Grady, a man who advocated separation of the races as social policy.  Oddly enough, the school was originally called Boys High, further complicating its heritage of discrimination.  Still while now girls clearly belonged in this fabled institution, it was equally clear that we white girls did not require police escorts to ensure our safety.

At Emory University, I stood vigil opposing the Vietnam war, standing on the cafeteria steps with 20 or so fellow students and faculty.   Because I thought the war and racism were inextricably intertwined, I ultimately joined Students for a Democratic Society which purposed to oppose both. When Stokely Carmichael, head of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, came to speak, I was in the front row.  Same thing when B.B. King played a concert in the church that served as one of the college’s auditoriums.  I don’t remember seeing many other black faces at either of those gatherings, though.

I dropped out of college my junior year to do community organizing in Little 5 Points, a mostly white blue-collar neighborhood in Atlanta.  We stood guard every night in our tiny print shop, armed and ready for expected confrontations with the Klan or Klan-like others.  Costumed in a working-class identity, eight of us white kids shared a 2-room apartment, sleeping in shifts (not with each other), some working at Fulton Cotton Mill (supposedly organizing the workers there), others at our print shop (an A.B. Dick printing press in the back of a shabby storefront which also housed our efforts to organize (white) students at Bass High School.  All that almost paid the rent:  additional sources of income include selling the Great Speckled Bird newspaper and marijuana, and generous checks sent from home. 

The next year I went back to finish college, majoring in English. I worked as a secretary for a year and then moved to Canada to escape what I perceived as Richard Nixon’s reign of terror (oh how innocent that seems).  Then I came back, got a job as a secretary in an ad agency and spent the next 25 years or so plying my marketing skills first on behalf of paying clients and later as a consultant to nonprofits.  Oh, Canada, the whitest of places, second only to the advertising world of Mad Men.

Through all these changes, one thing stayed the same:  I was clearly benefiting from and blithely unaware of the privilege derived from my whiteness.  I was equally oblivious to how my that privilege affected the black I people I believed I was trying to help.

And then, in 1995, I met Dr. C.T. Vivian.

First thing, after he was introduced, Dr. V asked each of us to introduce ourselves – who we were, what we did, what we expected from the time we would have with him.  Given the make-up of the group, that was some pretty impressive information given by people who were used to being admired on the basis of their bios.   He nodded and smiled at each intro, clearly appreciating the value and the values being presented.  Then he told the black folk in the room to leave the room.  When our black classmates returned to the room (Dr. V had given them instructions we could not hear), we were told to form a circle.  Except the black folk huddled together tightly so there was no way we white folk could follow the instructions.  An object lesson for sure. 

Clearly the tables were turned.  No more collegiality.  No more tentative sharing about how we felt about being white or black.  Just the relentless “get back” of being black. 

In another activity, Dr. V showed a short film of a racist preacher ranting about the need to keep the races separate.  The white folks to a one talked about how evil that was and how such a person should not be allowed to speak that way in public. “No,” Dr. V pointed out.  “I know who he is. I know where to find him.  It’s the ones who don’t speak out that worry me, the folk who hate in secret.  And worse still, the folk who think they don’t hate but really do and just haven’t realized it.”  At least two white men in the class took great offense and if I recall correctly one walked out.    

Day one concluded with no resolution to this evil mood.  Our black classmates had little to say to the rest of us about the goings on.  In hallway talk, two Latinx classmates said they were confused by being classified as black and angry that their specific concerns were completely ignored. Several of the white people spoke of complaining to the program director or dropping out altogether. As for me, by the end of the day, I was exhausted, fascinated, insulted, and curious about what was to come. 

Day 2, Sunday, surprisingly, everyone was back and we were seated randomly in a circle.  Dr. V invited feedback on the experience of day 1 and, to no one’s surprise, got an earful of complaints and agita.  In the subsequent discussion, Dr. V shared his thinking behind the design of the experience and his hopes for how it might help with our leadership development.  Then we broke into small groups to have a deeper discussion of our experiences.  And, finally, we returned to the circle and Dr. V put on his preacher hat, visiting each of us, one by one, touching our hands and offering his blessing.  By then I was in tears.  I am again now as I write this.

In college, we SDS members, all white, would have interminable discussions whether the black south had to the right to stand as an independent nation, per 5 criteria provided by Stalin and adopted by the highly controversial Republic of New Afrika. Our blasé-ness astounds me today:  while we smoked weed and talked politics, members of RNA were trading gunfire and beat-downs with local police forces as far afield as Bronx, NY and Jackson, MI.   We had a lot to say about how people would have to give up their white skin privilege when that nation emerged and (god help us!) we saw the violence as a necessary part of “the revolution,” refusing to consider alternative approaches to the deeper issues of inequality and dispossession.  

President Obama talked about “the audacity of hope.”  Reflecting back, to think that our gaggle of well-meaning college kids had anything to say or do about a black nationalist movement clearly reflected an “audacity of white.”   We white people did not hesitate to go into black people’s business. And, never for a moment, did we white people own up to the evil absurdity that black people could not reverse the protocol – the very object lesson contained in the huddle-up exercise at Dr. Vivian’s workshop. 

That is the what and the so what of how Dr. Vivian changed my life.  The now what is a lifelong project.

Afterword

Today I learned that Congressman John Lewis died.  My acquaintance with him was as a constituent in his district, a reader of his book (I have a signed copy), and believer in all for which he stood.  He and Dr. Vivian were colleagues and allies who lived long, hard and provocative lives:  honoring and extending that provocation seems an appropriate memorial, so that rather than latter day bookends of the civil rights movement, they stand as bridges between generations seeking to do the right thing for all time.

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