C.T. Vivian’s Kaleidoscope Awards continue celebration of literary excellence

Civil Rights leader’s foundation will honor standout voices in Black literature on April 18
Jo and Al Vivian, daughter-in-law and son of Civil Rights leader C.T. Vivian, pose for a portrait at their home in Atlanta on Monday, April 8, 2024. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Jo and Al Vivian, daughter-in-law and son of Civil Rights leader C.T. Vivian, pose for a portrait at their home in Atlanta on Monday, April 8, 2024. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

The story goes that when he was about five years old, C.T. Vivian was playing in the “library” of his grandmother’s home in Macomb, Illinois, when he spotted the book that would change his young life.

That library was essentially a couple of shelves of books.

But one of them was the Rev. William J. Simmons’ massive “Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising,” an anthology of 177 short biographies of Black men written in 1887.

Portrait of C.T. Vivian at his home library as his daughter Charisse Thornton (background) and Dawnn Mitchell work on checking inventory on Tuesday, July 25, 2017. The National Monuments Foundation will be acquiring and managing the world-class library of Atlanta Civil Rights icon, C.T. Vivian. The library will be housed in the new Cook Park in Vine City. Vivian lived in the same Vine City neighborhood that will border Cook Park where his library is to be constructed under a 101-foot Peace Column. The 6,000 volume C.T. Vivian Library is one of the most impressive private collections in the city. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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It was the early 1930s and most accounts of Black men in the media were reduced to Jim Crow stereotypes still lingering from Reconstruction.

“He had never seen African American men honored in a positive way in a book and that changed the course of his life,” said Vivian’s son, Al Vivian. “That made him say, ‘I can be something bigger and better than what I thought I could become.’

While he would become one of the key pillars of the Civil Rights Movement, alongside Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, Ralph David Abernathy and Andrew Young, Vivian was also the movement’s resident scholar.

When he died in 2020, he and his wife Octavia had amassed more than 6,000 books — mostly by Black authors.

“Dad was always reading something,” Al Vivian said. “He wanted books that uplifted and told the full, true story of African American history and culture, which is really important because it is being erased from our history books.”

Al Vivian, son of Civil Rights leader C.T. Vivian, pose for a portrait at his home in Atlanta on Monday, April 8, 2024. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Next week, the C.T. Vivian Foundation will host its third Kaleidoscope Awards for Literary Excellence, a program designed to publicly acknowledge Vivian’s love of literature while raising money for scholarships, and eventually a library and museum in his name.

Charles Blow, opinion columnist for The New York Times, and young adult author Jacqueline Woodson will be honored at the April 18 ceremony at the Hyatt Regency in Atlanta.

Former Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor and Zora Neale Hurston biographer Valerie Boyd, who died in 2022, will be honored posthumously. Dominic Stokes, executive director of the Community Teen Coalition, will get a special social justice award and several students will be awarded college scholarships.

“C.T. had a very strong love for literature so we wanted to make sure that we did something, as a fundraiser, that undergirded that portion of his life, which can easily lost,” said DeAna Jo Vivian, the executive director of the foundation and Vivian’s daughter-in-law. “We wanted to honor those who have given voice to the African American experience.”

For most of his 95 years, Vivian was that voice of the African American experience.

In 1947, nearly a decade before the Montgomery Bus Boycott and well before King burst upon the stage, Vivian participated in his first sit-in in Peoria, Illinois.

His civil rights work deepened when he moved to Tennessee and joined the Nashville Student Movement, along with Lewis, Diane Nash, James Bevel, Bernard Lafayette, Jim Lawson and Kelly Miller Smith.

While participating in the Freedom Rides, C.T. Vivian was arrested in Mississippi. Convicted, he was shipped to the notorious Parchman Prison.
Family Photo

Credit: HANDOUT

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Credit: HANDOUT

But his legend was cemented in Selma, Alabama, on Feb. 15, 1965.

On that day, Vivian challenged Jim Clark, Dallas County’s 6-foot-2, 220-pound, short-tempered sheriff, about the voting rights of nearly 30,000 disenfranchised Blacks in the city.

Clark punched Vivian in the face, sending him sprawling down the steps of the Dallas County Courthouse. Bloody, and with cameras in his face, Vivian kept shouting down Clark.

Rev C. T. Vivian talks about his encounter with Sheriff Jim Clark in Selma

Because it was carried on television, historians have called Clark’s attack on Vivian one of the defining moments of the Civil Rights Movement.

Vivian went on to work closely with King, starting the Upward Bound program in 1965 to provide college access to low-income students and earning the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.

But at the heart of his work was literature. He loved books and converted a wing of his southwest Atlanta home into a personal library with more than 6,000 volumes, including first editions from the 18th century.

The National Monuments Foundation will be acquiring and managing the world-class library of Atlanta Civil Rights icon, C.T. Vivian. The 7,000 volume C.T. Vivian Library is one of the most impressive private collections in the city. (Video by Hyosub Shin / AJC)

“He believed that literature had the ability to spark imagination, strengthen critical thinking and solidify our confidence in who we are as African Americans,” DeAna Jo Vivian said. “He believed that was the channel to move forward as a nation, to not only discover who we are but who we have been, and who we have the potential to be.”

Al and DeAna Jo Vivian’s Glenwood Park home is cleverly appointed with striking artwork and large framed photographs of family members. Large windows bathe the home with enough sunlight to distract from the constant din of I-20, less than 100 yards from their backyard.

Jo and Al Vivian, daughter-in-law and son of Civil Rights leader C.T. Vivian, pose for a portrait at their home in Atlanta on Monday, April 8, 2024. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

The couple, who have been married for 40 years, were in the kitchen Monday unpacking boxes for the award program’s silent auction. The Foundation is a family affair, with several family members serving on the board.

In 2012, Vivian started the Foundation (originally the C.T. and Octavia Vivian Museum and Archive) to “Advance the legacy and vision of C.T. and Octavia, centered around social justice issues of literacy, education and the preservation of African American literature and our history,” according to DeAna Jo Vivian.

“Octavia was the foundation on which C.T. stood,” she said. “She was quietly his greatest supporter. I don’t think he could make a move in life without her. You may have seen C.T. out there in front of the cameras leading a march or correcting a wrong, but it didn’t come without having a conversation with Octavia first.”

Jo Vivian, daughter-in-law of Civil Rights leader C.T. Vivian, poses for a portrait at her home in Atlanta on Monday, April 8, 2024. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

When Vivian died in 2020, his family carefully packed and insured the collection, and put it in storage at Emory University. The next step is to build the stand-alone C.T. and Octavia Vivian Literary Museum for the collection.

The Foundation has had talks with the National Monuments Foundation, the Andrew Young Foundation and the City of Atlanta about building the library in Rodney Cook Sr. Park in Vine City.

“Our goal is to develop a space where we bring the literature to life,” DeAna Jo Vivian said. “It is not just our history, it is American history. And we feel it’s our responsibility to preserve it, to tell it and to pass it on to the next generation.”


The Kaleidoscope Awards for Literary Excellence, honoring Black writers and others writing about the Black experience, will be held April 18, at the Hyatt Regency Atlanta, 265 Peachtree Street.

The program begins at 6 p.m.