The Rev. C.T. Vivian, an early and key advisor to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. who organized pivotal campaigns in the civil rights movement and spent decades after advocating for justice and equality, died Friday at the age of 95.
Vivian began staging sit-ins against segregation in Peoria, Illinois, in the 1940s — a dozen years before lunch-counter protests by college students made national news. He met King soon after the budding civil rights leader’s leadership of the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, and helped translate ideas into action by organizing the Freedom Rides that eventually forced federal intervention across the South.
Vivian boldly challenged a segregationist sheriff while trying to register Black voters in Selma, Alabama, where hundreds, then thousands, later marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
“You can turn your back now and you can keep your club in your hand, but you cannot beat down justice. And we will register to vote because as citizens of these United States we have the right to do it,” Vivian declared, wagging his index finger at Sheriff Jim Clark as the cameras rolled. The sheriff then punched him, and news coverage of the assault helped turned a local registration drive into a national phenomenon.
Former diplomat and congressman Andrew Young, another close King confidant, said Vivian was always “one of the people who had the most insight, wisdom, integrity and dedication.”
President Barack Obama honored Vivian with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013, saying that “time and again, Reverend Vivian was among the first to be in the action: In 1947, joining a sit-in to integrate an Illinois restaurant; one of the first Freedom Riders; in Selma, on the courthouse steps to register blacks to vote, for which he was beaten, bloodied and jailed.”
Obama continued: “Rosa Parks said of him, ‘Even after things had supposedly been taken care of and we had our rights, he was still out there, inspiring the next generation, including me,’ helping kids go to college with a program that would become Upward Bound.” He praised Vivian, then 89, for being “still in the action, pushing us closer to our founding ideals.”
Speaking with students in Tennessee 50 years after the Voting Rights Act was signed into law, Vivian urged them to act strategically as they advocated for justice and equality. The civil rights movement was effective not only because of its nonviolence, but because activists used made sure their messages were amplified, he said.
“This is what made the movement; our voice was really heard. But it didn’t happen by accident; we made certain it was heard,” Vivian said.
Cordy Tindell Vivian was born July 28, 1924, in Howard County, Missouri, but moved to Macomb, Illinois, with his mother as a young boy. He later studied theology alongside John Lewis at the American Baptist College in Nashville, Tennessee, where they trained waves of activists in non-violent protest.
King made Vivian his national director of affiliates at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and sent him around the South to register voters, an effort that brought Vivian to Selma in 1965. Standing on the Dallas County courthouse steps as a line of Black people stretched down the block behind him, he argued for their voting rights until Clark’s punch knocked him flat.
Vivian stood back up and kept talking before he was stitched up and jailed, and his mistreatment helped draw thousands of protesters, whose determination to march from Selma to Montgomery pressured Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act later that year.
Vivian continued to serve in the SCLC after King’s assassination in 1968, and became its interim president in 2012, lending renewed credibility and a tangible link to the civil rights era after the organization stagnated for years amid financial mismanagement and infighting.
“There must always be the understanding of what Martin had in mind for this organization,” Vivian said in a 2012 interview. “Nonviolent, direct action makes us successful. We learned how to solve social problems without violence. We cannot allow the nation or the world to ever forget that.”
Vivian died at home in Atlanta of natural causes Friday morning, his friend and business partner Don Rivers confirmed to The Associated Press.
Vivian had a stroke about two months ago but seemed to recover, Rivers said. Then, “he just stopped eating,” he said.
Rivers, 67, said he was 21 when he met Vivian at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. Back then, he worked as an audio director when Vivian was the dean of the university’s divinity school. The two remained close over the years and Rivers said he handled the business side of Vivian’s work.
“He’s such a nice, gentle, courageous man,” Rivers said, adding that the reverend wasn’t in it for the money but, “he was always giving, giving, giving.”