Who was C.T. Vivian? Civil rights pioneer dies at age 95

Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient was among first to confront injustice

Credit: AJC

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.

Cordy Tindell Vivian, the only child of Robert Cordie and Euzetta Tindell Vivian, was born July 30, 1924, in Boonville, Missouri.

His parents divorced when he was young, and Vivian was raised by his mother and grandmother.

Vivian told the National Visionary Leadership Project those women had a vision for his life.

“Despite losing their family farm to the Depression, a home to arson and their husbands, these women were determined that their son would become an educated, self-confident leader and continue the family’s progress from slavery,” the NVLP website states.

» Read and sign the guestbook for the Rev. C.T. Vivian

In 1930, his mother and grandmother moved him to Macomb, Illinois, because the schools were not segregated and the city had a college.

Vivian’s grandmother read to him passages from Williams Wells Brown’s “The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements,” which was published in 1863 — two years before the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in America.

“She said, ‘These are Race Men. Men of mark.’ They had made their mark in life in spite of racism and poverty,” Vivian told the AJC’s Ernie Suggs in 2013. “This book has always been a part of my life. She didn’t say, ‘You gonna do this,’ and I didn’t say anything back to her. She said it and moved on.

“But I knew.”

Vivian attended Western Illinois University briefly. He majored in English but was barred from joining the prestigious English Club and quickly became disillusioned with the university.

He then moved to Peoria to work at the George Washington Carver Community Center. While working there, Vivian participated in his first sit-in and met his future wife, Octavia.

In 1955, Vivian enrolled in the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville. He, Diane Nash, John Lewis and others from American Baptist, Fisk University and Tennessee State University, organized a systematic nonviolent sit-in campaign.

It was during this time he met the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. who asked Vivian to be a part of the executive staff of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference as the national director of affiliates. As an SCLC strategist, he worked to help get the Civil Rights Bill and Voting Rights Act passed.

In 1965, Vivian led a group of marchers to the Selma, Alabama, courthouse to register to vote. They were met with violence, which was shown on television. The sheriff, Jim Clark, punched Vivian so hard he was left dazed on the courthouse steps.

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 left the SCLC the next year and moved to Chicago to direct the Urban Training Center for Christian Missions, where he trained clergy, community leaders and others to organize.

According to the C.T. Vivian Leadership Institute, which he founded in 2008, Vivian “returned to the realm of seminary education as the dean of divinity at Shaw University Seminary. There he originated and acquired funding for an unprecedented national level program, the basis of his doctoral work, Seminary Without Walls.”

He serves on the board of the Center for Democratic Renewal, the National Voting Rights Museum and as a founder of Black-owned Capital City Bank in Atlanta. He has provided civil rights counsel to Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, and continues to lecture on racial justice and democracy.

In 2013, Vivian was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States. It was presented to him by the country’s first Black president, Barack Obama.

Vivian’s children were there — except for Cordy. The Vivians’ first son died in 2010. He was born with cerebral palsy, but doctors initially refused to place the prematurely-born Cordy in an incubator, because they didn’t have one for black babies.

Also absent that day at the White House was Octavia Vivian, who died in 2014.

The Rev. C.T. Vivian died July 17. He was 95.

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