By: Harold Michael Harvey
Ryan Seacrest, host of the popular ABC reality show American Idol posit in a twit the other day: “Who is the most influential person that you have ever met, it could be someone famous or the baker?
I immediately fired off the names of three people whom I had met who have been very influential on the local and national level. It seemed impossible to name just one. I ticked off a list beginning with Atlanta businessman Jesse Hill, Jr., former United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young, and civil rights activist Dr. C. T. Vivian.
Jesse Hill, Jr. Moved to Atlanta in the early 1950's after graduating from Lincoln University. He took up residence in the local YMCA that admitted colored people over on old Butler Street, which is now fittingly named Jesse Hill, Jr. Boulevard. He stayed in the Butler Street Y until he married a young nurse, Vera, from Cuba, who worked at the charity hospital on Butler Street. Mr. Hill went to work as an insurance agent for a black owned insurance company, The Atlanta Life Insurance Company. He so influenced the owner until he moved up the ranks to serve the company as its CEO for much of the last half of the 20 th century.
In 1960 he came to my attention as I read in Jet Magazine that he was selected as the first Negro to head up the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. I was ten years of age and reading this news had a profound impact upon by desire to succeed. In the 1960's Mr. Hill was the money man who raised the funds necessary to support Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s efforts throughout the southeastern United States. In the 1990's we were neighbors. Mr. Hill built a spacious mansion across the street from my humble abode and we worked on several community projects. He was always gracious to seek my counsel on neighborhood concerns and I was overjoyed when he would take my calls and entertain my questions.
I’ve also met former U. N. Ambassador Andrew Young. He came to Atlanta from seminary school to work for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the late 1950's. He had a way of framing a situation and forming a consensus among men who disagreed with him. Dr. King had a tactic of sending Rev. Hosea Williams into a community to rouse the people into action and after Rev. Williams got things stirred up Ambassador Young would go in, defuse the situation and arrange for Dr. King to come in and lead a peaceful demonstration. On the strength of this simple strategy civil rights for the American Negro was won.
I first encountered Ambassador Young in 1975. I was the campaign manager for the first Black candidate to seek the office of Mayor of Macon, Georgia. In fact Rev. Julius C. Hope was the first Black candidate for mayor of a major city in Georgia. One day after canvassing the town Rev. Hope requested that I take a ride with him. We drove out to a shopping complex on the southwest side of the city. Shortly after we pulled into the parking lot, a car pulled along side us bearing a Fulton County license plate (Atlanta is the county seat). We got out to greet our visitor from Atlanta. He was none other than Andy Young. He quickly greeted us warmly, pressed an envelop firmly into Rev. Hopes extended right hand and turned to reenter his car. Although Rev. Hope never told me what was in the envelop, I suspected it was much needed campaign money.
We maneuvered ourselves into a run-off against the town’s top lawyer. It was time for Ambassador Young to ride into town, make sense out of history, and pave the way for victory. A fund raising banquet was held at the old Macon Hilton Hotel. Ambassador Young was the keynote speaker. I had the honor of escorting him to the dais. As was my habit in that day, I handed him a vanilla file folder which contained what I thought needed to be done to enforce the 1968 Voting Rights Act so that African Americans would have the opportunity to win elections in the South.
He was gracious. He accepted my report. He spoke about change sweeping the South. He told us that in Dr. King’s darkest hour, he never despaired. We lost the run-off election, but the next year Jimmy Carter became president and he appointed Andrew Young as U. N. Ambassador. A post he held until he did the unthinkable and engaged the Palestinians in a conversation about bringing peace to North East Africa. Ambassador Young came home from Washington, D. C. and served two terms as Mayor of Atlanta.
Third on my list is Dr. C. T. Vivian another stalwart of the Civil Rights movement. He first came to my attention on a CBS evening news broadcast. It was sometime in the early 1960's. He was tall, handsome and pontifical as he stood outside of an Alabama courthouse defying the local sheriff who wanted him to shut his mouth or at the very lest was waiting for an opportunity to shut if for him. “You can’t stop these Negroes from registering to vote,” a fearless Vivian proclaimed. “They have a right to register to vote,” he continued until he was shoved down to the ground.
I was in my early teens. I learned from him that it was alright to be shoved to the ground as long as you were right in your convictions. “Truth,” as the Hebrew Prophet said, “crushed to the earth shall rise again.” Dr. Vivian got up off the ground and in a post civil rights age he conducts workshops designed to assist people in overcoming prejudices. He also lives across the street from me.
Although there are many years which separate us in age, he and I share morning conversations regularly, as if we grew up together, whenever our morning walks coincide. Sometimes my wife will send me out to the store and on my way back into the subdivision Dr. Vivian is pulling into his driveway. We will get out of our cars and talk for hours.
On any given night you can find us underneath the street light in front of one of our homes solving the world’s problems.
© April 13, 2009