Civil rights icon remembered for his wisdom and courage

Former Vice President Joe Biden called the Rev. C.T. Vivian on Thursday, “a man whose physical courage was exceeded only by his moral courage.”

Media mogul Oprah Winfrey, referencing a poem by Maya Angelou, said “We are better because he existed.”

Those were but a few of the testimonials, live and by video, at the funeral for Vivian, a civil rights icon and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient. He died July 17 at the age of 95.

The service held at Providence Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta, was was open only to family and a few friends because of the coronavirus pandemic. Vivian was buried at Westview Cemetery.

ExploreThe Life and Times of C.T. Vivian

Biden and Winfrey, were joined by Henry and Billye Aaron, Bernard Lafayette, Andrew Young and Henrietta Antoine, in delivering their remarks via pre-recorded video.

Attending in person were Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, as well as the children of civil rights icons — Martin Luther King III, Michael Julian Bond, John-Miles Lewis and Karen Lowery, who sang “The Lord’s Prayer.”

“How do you adequately say goodbye to the greatest person you have ever known?” asked Vivian’s son, Al Vivian. “A man who has been your father, your mentor, your frat brother and still your friend, after being your boss? The man who bestowed on me my witty, my sons would say corny, sense of humor? No matter how long I love, no matter whatever I accomplish, the greatest thing I will ever be known for is the son of C.T. Vivian.”

Biden, who was vice president in 2013, when Barack Obama gave Vivian the Presidential Medal of Freedom, told the Vivian family he understood how difficult it is to grieve in public. In 1972, Biden’s first wife Neilia and their one-year-old daughter Naomi were killed in an automobile accident. In 2015, Biden’s 46-year-old son Beau Biden died of brain cancer.

Biden, the Democratic Party’s nominee for president, said, Vivian “didn’t waste a single one of the days that God granted him.”

Caption
Civil Rights icon C.T. Vivian talks about the fateful showdown with police in the 1960s.

ExploreThe Personal Journey of C.T. Vivian

“C.T. was truly a remarkable man…whose capacity for love overwhelmed incredible hatreds. Whose faith in the power of non-violence helped forever change our nation,” Biden said. “The number of times he faced down being drowned, being beaten, being reviled, only to stand up straight as a ram rod, bloody but unbent and declare the truth that he saw so clearly and say, ‘You cannot turn your back on the idea of justice.’”

Paintings of a smiling Vivian stood on the church’s altar and alongside his closed casket, which was covered with a large spray of flowers. As the Rev. Gerald Durley noted, everyone who spoke talked less about sorrow, and more about what Vivian taught them.

Several people noted that Vivian called every woman “sis,” and every man “doc.” It was partially a term of endearment and partially because he had a hard time remembering names.

“C.T. was a good man,” Durley said. “And if I had to say five words about him, they would be, he had a good name. Now, keep his good name alive by going out and voting. That is what C.T. would want.”

Born in 1924 in Missouri, Cordy Tindell Vivian’s early work in civil rights started in 1947 when he helped integrate lunch counters in Peoria, Illinois. He was a member of the Nashville Student Movement, the Freedom Riders and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

As a teenager, C.T. Vivian learned early, that while he was popular in town and in school, things would always be different for him.
Caption
As a teenager, C.T. Vivian learned early, that while he was popular in town and in school, things would always be different for him.

Credit: HANDOUT

Credit: HANDOUT

In February 1965, while trying to register voters in Selma, Alabama, he was violently punched in the face by a segregationist sheriff. That punch broke the sheriff’s hand, but Vivian rose back to his feet to continue making his point without hitting back. It signaled to America that the non-violence practiced by civil rights workers was a viable strategy, because four months later, Congress passed and President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act.

In a video retrospective of his life, Vivian said in a clip from a 1990s appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show, “Racism destroys more people psychologically and physically than any other factor in American society.”

Winfrey remembered how that show played out.

“What an impact he made on that audience, mostly white women. Gently, yet passionately confronting them on their ignorances and their denial of racial inequality,” Winfrey said. “We spent several days filming, and it was a privilege to witness his wisdom, teaching, and action. In his presence, we were always learning more about our country, ourselves and what it means to stand for what is right. He was a giant for justice.”

Don Rivers, Vivian’s long-time aide-de-camp, met the civil rights leader when he was an 18-year-old student at Shaw University and Vivian was the dean of the college’s divinity school.

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ExploreWillie A. Watkins tasked with funerals of John Lewis and C.T. Vivian

He told a story about driving Vivian around Raleigh one rainy day. At a stoplight, a homeless man ambled across.

“Dr. Vivian just started crying. He raised his head and said, ‘I wonder what brought this man to this point in life?’” Rivers said. “He loved everyone no matter the color or status.”

Outside the church, a small group of fans of Vivian sang gospel songs, including “This Little Light of Mine” and The Impressions’ “Amen.” They held photos of Vivian above their heads along the street to let passersby know whose funeral had garnered so much attention as media swarmed the outside of the church.

Edna Davis brought her granddaughter Y’Habei Huggins with her to the church to say goodbye to C.T. Vivian. While Davis, 65, could not get in the church, she wanted to make sure she let others know of his greatness.

“We loved Dr. C.T. Vivian,” she said. He was very warm and friendly. He did not meet a stranger.”

When her daughter Danielle was in the 10th grade, he welcomed her into his home for an interview as part of a class assignment.

“Dr. Vivian was a quiet sort of man except when he got riled up because he needed to be,” Davis said. “I appreciate the fact that he was willing to give his time and his life at such a young age. What I regret is that because he was quiet he was oftentimes overlooked.”

Though the embodiment of nonviolence, ”He lived his life ferociously,” King III said.

And there’s one more thing.

Vivian was a speed demon behind the wheel, King III said with a laugh. He remembered a time when Vivian was following behind him to an event. Apparently they were moving too slow, and Vivian let them know that before he sped off.

“I’ll see you there,” Vivian yelled out the window as he passed.

Credit: AJC

Caption
Cordy Tindell Vivian was born July 30, 1924, in Boonville, Missouri. Raised by his mother and grandmother, Vivian told the National Visionary Leadership Project those women had a vision for his life.

Credit: AJC

Baseball great Henry Aaron said: “I got to love him really, not know him, but love him for what he stood for and what he did and the things that he did.”

At one time, Aaron was one of five Black men in Atlanta who wore Presidential Medals of Freedom, along with Ambassador Andrew Young, Congressman John Lewis, the Rev. Joseph Lowery and Vivian.

“Sometimes you wonder what carried these civil rights guys on. I am so blessed to have known him,” Aaron said.

The Rev. DeAna Jo Vivian, who was the service’s officiant, said her father walked around with a list in his breast pocket of 100 books everyone should read.

He had a love of the written word and language. He amassed an amazing library that included a collection of first editions by Black authors.

Martin Luther King Jr. called him the “greatest preacher to ever live.”.

“C.T. Vivian had a rhythm to his message. And his rhythm was like music. As he continued to make his points, he always went in-depth,” said Bernard Lafayette, who met Vivian in the early 1960s when they were both part of the Nashville Student Movement. “That was the intellectual part of it, you could always draw from what he had to say, not just a repetition of verses, but he had a tone to it. I would describe his preaching as an echo from heaven.”

In Vivian’s last days, Andrew Young said he visited him several times. Almost in awe, Young talked about how Vivian weighed the same as he did in college because he was such a fitness fanatic, who enjoyed tennis and walking around the campus of Morris Brown College.

At 95, Young said he was still strong and sharp, although “his voice was weak, his thoughts were clear.”

“He was always a pastor. He was always a preacher and a good one. His motivation was always spiritual. He didn’t want attention. He didn’t want money,” Young said. “He only wanted to do God’s will and bring out the best in these United States of America and its people.