The Rev. C.T. Vivian, an early and key adviser to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. who organized pivotal civil rights campaigns and spent decades 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 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.”
Barack Obama, who honored Vivian with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013, tweeted Friday that “he was always one of the first in the action — a Freedom Rider, a marcher in Selma, beaten, jailed, almost killed, absorbing blows in hopes that fewer of us would have to.”
“He waged nonviolent campaigns for integration across the south, and campaigns for economic justice throughout the north, knowing that even after the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act that he helped win, our long journey to equality was nowhere near finished,” Obama wrote.
Obama also drew a direct line from “Vivian and all the heroes in that Civil Rights Generation” to today’s generation of activists, saying “I have to imagine that seeing the largest protest movement in history unfold over his final months gave the Reverend a final dose of hope.”
Among many other tributes, The King Center in Atlanta tweeted: “Rev. C.T. Vivian. Courageous. Brilliant. Sacrificial. A powerfully well-lived life that lifted humanity. We will miss you.” And the Rev. Al Sharpton, who heads the National Action Network, tweeted that Vivian “made this nation and world a better place. … RIP, my friend.”
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 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 studied theology alongside future civil rights leader and U.S. Congressman John Lewis at the American Baptist College in Nashville, Tennessee, where they trained waves of activists in nonviolent 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 after the organization stagnated for years. He also co-founded VISION, the precursor to Outward Bound; the Center for Democratic Renewal; and a consulting firm that encouraged improvements in race relations.
“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. “He was always giving, giving, giving.”