A ballroom full of prominent Atlantans rose to its feet Tuesday night as Rev. C.T. Vivian walked to the stage. A hero of the civil rights era, namely the Selma-to-Montgomery march movement depicted in the Oscar-nominated “Selma,” he was honored at the 13th annual Heritage Celebration at the Hyatt Regency Atlanta.
“I am so glad I came to this city,” the youthful nonagenarian said. “When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used nonviolent direct action, he changed the world. We can change social issues and solve them without shooting, without killing, without hating. Now we see a new world ahead.”
Vivian is portrayed by actor Corey Reynolds in “Selma.” The movie, filmed largely in metro Atlanta, earned a best original song Golden Globe and is up for a corresponding Academy Award. It’s also up for a best-picture Oscar. The awards air at 7 p.m. Sunday on Channel 2.
“I thought that the movie itself tells the story in a way that you can feel every thing that the movement was about. You can get an idea of what we were doing,” Vivian said during an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I’ve seen it three times.”
As he enjoys the excitement surrounding the film he specifically wanted to salute his alma mater, American Baptist College in Nashville (known as American Baptist Theological Seminary during his time there).
“We created more of the leadership of the civil rights leadership than any other seminary in the country,” he said. “(The late Rev). Jim Bevel went to American Baptist. (U.S. Rep.) John Lewis went to American Baptist. It really was a marvelous thing to see all of us leave there and become basic to Martin King’s staff and the (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) staff and the continuing work of nonviolent direct action. It is what made the movement.”
Vivian said his time at American Baptist prepared him for what would turn out to be his key role in history.
“We put our lives on the line with a spiritual understanding,” he said. “That’s what the school was about, carrying out the social work of the Christian church.”
His tenure at the school emboldened him to live his faith, he added.
“Sooner or later we have to get rid of the idea that we can just talk about it but not live it,” he said. “When I say live it I don’t mean simply going to church on Sunday. I mean changing the very culture in which we live.”
Dr. Forrest E. Harris, the president of American Baptist, said “Selma” has provided timely learning opportunities for the school’s students.
“The movie ‘Selma’ certainly depicts a relevant period in our history in a way that keeps before us important lessons,” Harris said. “It is a way that we can help our current students understand our role in leadership. It’s important we develop leaders, to make sure other generations understand justice and freedom and how to exercise justice and freedom as global citizens.”
Harris is proud of the spiritual foundation American Baptist provided civil rights heroes like Vivian, and said the school continues to instill important values.
“What we are seeing a need for is for young people to develop a deep sense of character,” Harris said. “Each life is interrelated. Education means changing society for the good of all.”