Renowned civil rights icon is the first non-elected Black man to lie in state

Atlanta began saying goodbye to C.T. Vivian Wednesday.

The 95-year-old Vivian, who died last Friday, will be buried Thursday, following a private ceremony.

But his life and legacy was well celebrated Wednesday in the state Capitol, before a horse-drawn hearse pulled his casket by the crypt of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, followed by a throng of mourners and singers chanting his name.

“Dr. Vivian was a beacon for this community, country and world,” said Rachelle Clay, a teacher. “This day is very heavy, but for everything he did, I had to come and pay my final respects today.”

Vivian, a serious scholar and civil rights tactician, was also very funny and jovial. Nearly every story told about him this week involved laughter and joy.

ExploreC.T. Vivian's private funeral on Thursday will be livestreamed

That is why earlier in the day, the Rev. Gerald Durley purposely turned Vivian’s solemn ceremony at the state Capitol into a celebration.

Vivian was the first Black, non-elected man to lie in state.

Following Governor Brian Kemp to the podium, and overlooking Vivian’s casket that was draped with a Georgia state flag, Durley quickly changed the mood.

“This is a special day in the life of this city,” shouted Durley, who will preach Vivian’s funeral Thursday. “Good people don’t finish last.”

The crowd cheered.

“When all of the applauding is over,” Durley continued. “Get out and vote like you never voted before. If you want to honor C.T. get out and vote.”

Vivian worked with King to get the Voting Rights Act passed with his historic 1965 confrontation with a segregationist sheriff in Selma, Alabama.

Evoking the pandemic and the deaths of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks, Gov. Brian Kemp said Vivian’s “story and importance are nothing short of inspiring.”

07/22/2020 - Atlanta, Georgia - The Georgia State flag is placed on the casket of C.T. Vivian as his body lie in state inside the rotunda at the Georgia State Capitol Building during a special service to honor his legacy in Atlanta, Wednesday, July 22, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

That is why Michelle McClain, a Fulton County teacher, brought her 11-year-old godson, Tamarr Lee, to the Capitol to honor Vivian.

“I have been talking to him a lot, as a young Black man, about what has been going on in the community,” McClain said. “And I have been talking to him about men like Rev. Vivian, one of the last of the civil rights leaders who helped us. I want to educate him about the things Rev. Vivian has done, while preparing him for what is next for him as a Black man.”

ExploreMeet the Atlanta funeral director entrusted with services for C.T. Vivian and John Lewis

Between noon and 3:30 p.m. a steady stream of mourners walked through the Capitol’s rotunda.

Among the mourners were Vivian’s children. Kemp presented Vivian’s son Al with the Georgia state flag to cover the casket with.

“This was a great honor for us,” said Jo Anna Walker, Vivian’s oldest child. “I know he was a civil rights icon, but the main thing for us, as a family, is that he was an excellent father who loved us unconditionally and always made sure we knew we were loved.”

“When I was growing up, I knew that he had been a close aide to Martin Luther King. I know that I enjoyed when he visited us,” said Kirsten Vivian, Vivian’s first grandchild. “But he was just granddaddy. A loving granddaddy. He exemplified love to me.”

Don Rivers, 67, who had known Vivian since he was an 18-years-old student at Shaw University and traveled with him across the country, called him “a humble servant.”

“Dr. Vivian lived by principles that I attempt to try to live by on a daily basis, which is truth respect, justice and, always, love.”

Grant Maxie, among a team of teenagers from the C.T. Vivian Leadership Institute, has been in the program since he was six years old. He is now 18 and has enlisted in the United States Marine Corps.

“He influenced me. He showed me what it meant to be a respectful, responsible man and to be a great American. He always had a story or life lesson to teach. He brought joy to everyone he met.”

07/22/2020 - Atlanta, Georgia - A bagpiper leads the body of C.T. Vivian to the rotunda of the Georgia State Capitol building for a special service to honor his legacy, Wednesday, July 22, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Following the viewing, pallbearers slowly rolled the body of Vivian out of the Capitol rotunda followed by family and mourners. The procession stopped at the statue of King on the grounds as “Amazing Grace” floated through the air.

Loretto Grier Cudjo stopped to watch. When she was 13 in 1968, her mother brought her downtown for the funeral of King.

”So much has changed since 1968, and whoever dreamed there would be a statue of King in front of the Capitol?” she said. “But Dr. King couldn’t do it alone, and Dr. Vivian was always by his side. Always faithful til the end.”

07/22/2020 - Atlanta, Georgia - A horse drawn carriage carries the body of C.T. Vivian down Capital Avenue SW toward the historic Sweet Auburn District in Atlanta, Wednesday, July 22, 2020. VivianÕs body laid in state in the rotunda of the building to celebrate his life. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

As The horse-drawn hearse carrying his body slowly made its way up Piedmont toward Auburn Avenue homeless men along the route all stood up. Senior citizens living in the Wheat Street Towers stood in their courtyard and waved.

When the procession stopped in front of the King crypt, the crowd helped remove the casket to carry it to the crypt. Dozens of hands reached around to touch it.

All of the people still singing “This little light of mine.”

ExploreThe Freedom fighter: How C.T. Vivian changed history

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