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The Life and Teachings of America’s “Finest Preacher”: How Students Are Looking to the Past to Advance Social Justice

From the time that C. T. Vivian was five years old, when his grandmother taught him how to read, education and literature were at the center of his life. During his sixty-year career as a civil rights leader—in which he participated in sit-ins and marches; helped to lead the 1961 Freedom Rides; and collaborated closely with Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson, and other major figures—he became known as the “finest preacher who ever lived” because of his eloquent vocabulary, ferocious reading, and passionate pursuit of knowledge.

The life of Vivian, who passed away in 2020, was devoted to promoting social justice, economic equality, and shared freedom for all. This fall, the C. T. and Octavia Vivian Museum and Archives (CTOVMA) has partnered with the Home Depot Foundation to develop a creative and inspirational college course based on C. T. Vivian’s teachings. The sixteen-week curriculum, It’s in the Action, is launching this semester at Emory University, the University of Georgia, Kennesaw State University, Morehouse College, the University of West Georgia, Clayton State University, Mercer University, and Louisiana State University Shreveport.

The curriculum is based on Vivian’s books Black Power and the America Myth and It’s in the Action: Memories of a Nonviolent Warrior. Students in the course take a deep dive into his advocacy for equality, including a comprehensive study of his extraordinary passion for promoting social justice and breaking barriers through strategies of nonviolent resistance.

The curriculum is already receiving great reviews from scholars. Robert Franklin, former president of Morehouse College and inaugural chair of moral leadership at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, is using some of the materials in his existing courses this fall and plans to teach a new course based around the curriculum in spring 2022. The curriculum is “a compelling, evocative, and engaging piece of work,” Franklin says, and the “sophisticated treatment of civil disobedience and the philosophy that undergirds nonviolence will accomplish its mission as it stands, and I hope many will be exposed to the journey it promises.”

The curriculum provides faculty members with carefully developed, yet flexible, course materials such as a detailed syllabus, copies of both of C. T. Vivian’s books, assignments and evaluation rubrics, and instructional guides for facilitating conversations. The curriculum’s final assignment supports students as they write and deliver a sermon or speech based on Vivian’s core teachings and theories of social justice.

“As C. T. Vivian said, ‘you are made by the struggles you choose,’” says Rev. DeAna Jo Vivian, executive director of CTOVMA and C. T. Vivian’s daughter-in-law, who coordinated the curriculum’s development with prominent scholars. “This curriculum offers an avenue to engage the mind and influence the actions of college and university students to make a difference in our nation. With several hundred students already engaged in this course, we can only imagine the impact they will have when it spreads to colleges and universities across the nation.”

Bryan Reber, department head of advertising and public relations at the University of Georgia, is teaching the curriculum to a small class of first-year students who plan to pursue careers ranging from public relations to pre-medicine. As they read C. T. Vivian’s books, his students are writing weekly reflective essays to make connections between history and advocacy for social justice today.

“This course and the period of history that it reflects made an impact on our society and the Voting Rights Act due in large part by the kind of media attention it received in the 1960s,” Reber says. “Whether a student is reflecting on the history of social justice in our country or making a comparison in their own minds about the relevance of Black Lives Matter today, this curriculum provides an excellent resource for creative writing and to understand the impact of current events for young minds.”

Gary Joiner, professor and chair of history and social sciences at Louisiana State University Shreveport, first learned about the curriculum in a webinar about C. T. Vivian’s memoir, It’s in the Action. “I immediately contacted the agency handling the logistics of the curriculum to see how we might participate in the launch,” Joiner says. “My team has been so enthusiastic about the materials that we had to order extra packages.”

As the curriculum expands to more colleges and universities, thousands of students will be examining social justice through the authentic life and teachings of C. T. Vivian, preparing them to change the conversation about race relations in US society today.

Amanda Brown Olmstead is president, and Adrianna Allen is account manager—both at A. Brown Olmstead Associates. Educators interested in learning more about the curriculum can call them at (404) 659-0919 or write to amanda@newaboa.com and adrianna@newaboa.com. Images above are included by permission of A. Brown Olmstead Associates.

Have an idea for a blog post? Write to dedman@aacu.org.

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