C.T. Vivian, civil rights hero and intellectual, dead at 95

Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient known for his historic confrontation in Selma

The Rev. C.T. Vivian made his lasting mark on the civil rights movement during an ugly confrontation that tested his commitment to nonviolence.

The year was 1965. The day was February 16.

Vivian and other activists were on the steps of the Dallas County courthouse in Selma, Ala., trying to register Black voters. Standing in a cold rain, Vivian passionately articulated the argument for the right of every person to vote.

Sheriff Jim Clark, a noted segregationist, punched Vivian in the mouth, knocking him to the ground.

Vivian did not retaliate. Instead he picked himself up and continued to argue for the right to vote.

Before being carted off to jail, he had 11 stitches put into his mouth.

“I had to show that I wasn’t afraid,” Vivian said in a 2013 interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

In an instant, in front of a bank of news cameras, he had indelibly demonstrated to the nation the power of nonviolence and made Clark an ugly symbol of violence, segregation and racial hatred.

More than 40 years later, he remembered the incident with clarity.

“I got down on my knees and said, ‘Thank you, Lord’ — not because I was alive, but because I had done what I should do, and I’d done it well,” Vivian said. “Even when I got knocked down, I stood back up. I’d stood up to the powers that be, and I did it nonviolently.”

C.T. Vivian, integration leader, left, leads a prayer on the courthouse steps in Selma, Ala., February 5, 1965, after Sheriff James Clark, background with helmet, stopped him at the door with a court order. Vivian led hundreds of demonstrators armed with petitions asking longer voter registration hours. Clark arrested them when they refused to disperse. (AP Photo/Horace Cort)


icon to expand image


In 2013, the man who couldn’t walk up the steps of a local courthouse without being assaulted found himself in the White House receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest accolade an American civilian can receive.

“Time and again, Rev. Vivian was among the first to be in the action,” President Obama said in conferring the honor. “In 1947, joining a sit-in to integrate an Illinois restaurant; one of the first Freedom Riders; in Selma, on the courthouse steps to register Blacks to vote, for which he was beaten, bloodied and jailed … helping kids go to college with a program that would become Upward Bound. And at 89 years old, Rev. Vivian is still out there, still in the action, pushing us closer to our founding ideals.”

Now, Vivian’s work has come to an end.

He died at 3 a.m. on July 17, his daughter confirmed.

He was 95.

One of Martin Luther King Jr.‘s most valuable lieutenants, the slim and trim Vivian was known for his intellect and philosophical reasoning, as well as his wit and humor.

Quick with a laugh, he would often punctuate a story by slapping his knee. During the telling, the pitch of his voice would often rise so high it could be hard to catch the punchline. He called everyone “Doc,” a habit his daughter said came from the fact that he couldn’t remember names.

“I’ve never met anyone like my dad,” his daughter Denise Morse said in a 2006 interview. “He just cared so much about human life.”

She said that one day, when she was 10 or 11, she was watching “The Three Stooges” on TV. Her father walked into the room and looked at the television set for a few moments. “‘How do you watch that stuff?‘” Morse remembered Vivian asking. “‘Isn’t there enough violence? Don’t people get tired of hurting each other? I’ve just seen enough violence.‘”

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

After his parents divorced, “C.T.,” as he quickly became known, and his mother spent most of his youth in Macomb, Illinois. His mother chose the town largely because Western Illinois University was there and she wanted C.T. to go to college.

“My grandmother started teaching me when I was 3, 4 years old,” Vivian said. “When I started school, I already knew the first three grades. She taught me Roman numerals, and she wasn’t Roman. That gave me a head start in every step of the way.”

Vivian had fond recollections of his childhood and adolescence in Macomb, a west-central Illinois small town with an even smaller Black population. Family photographs of Vivian show him in tailored suits even as a child. Class photos show him as the only Black child in a sea of white kids in overalls.

“I was treated so very well in Macomb,” Vivian said. “In many ways, Macomb made me. I was well accepted. But it is all connected. I was preparing to be involved to be in civil rights without even knowing it.”

Even in Macomb, tolerance had definite limits and “racism was always there on the edge,” Vivian would say.

He was not invited to social functions and parties away from school. Some of his friends apologized to him and said that they wished he could come, but that their parents would not allow it.

“I don’t remember a time that I didn’t understand the Black situation, (that) the dilemma was not real to me,” Vivian said in 2006.

After graduating from Macomb High School and briefly attending Western Illinois University, Vivian moved to Peoria, Illinois, to work as the assistant boy’s director for the Carver Community Center.

There, in 1947 and 1948, Vivian participated in his first movement activities, staging a sit-in at a restaurant to protest its policy of not serving Black people.

“All of us knew, from the beginning of our lives we knew, that we wanted to get rid of racism,” Vivian said. “We were all ready for that, and I wanted to be involved. It was not like a calling to the ministry, but a preparation for it.”

July 25, 2017 Atlanta - C.T. Vivian reads out his favorite poem "If We Must Die" by Claude McKay at his home library 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


icon to expand image


In 1952, Octavia Geans moved to Peoria from Pontiac, Michigan to take a job at the Carver Community Center helping with the women’s programs. At a party to mark her arrival, Vivian overheard Geans say that her birthday, Feb. 23, was coming up.

“So after the party I called her and said, ‘We don’t want you sitting around your room. I would like to take you to dinner,’” Vivian said.

There was an uncomfortable silence on the other end of the line.

“You could tell she was trying to remember who this was and whether she should say yes,” Vivian said. “She took a little time and, after I reminded her of who I was, she said yes. I took her to dinner and theater for her birthday and brought her back to where she was staying. Exactly one year later, on her birthday, we got married.”

In later years, he often called her “baby” and proudly showed her portrait to visitors in his art- and book-filled Cascade home. He also credited her with encouraging him to join the ministry.

“My life really began with my wife,” Vivian said.

Mrs. Vivian died in 2011.

Vivian said the call to join the ministry came to him one day while he was working at the Foster and Gallagher mail-order company in Peoria.

“I’m walking across the warehouse floor — a big, oval kind of thing. Suddenly it seems like the whole thing opened up, and I hear the voice of God saying to me, ‘Work for me 12 to 14 hours per day.’ I’m completely startled. I turn all around me, because I wonder how everyone else is taking this. And they’re just working away. It was just beyond me, but I knew it was my call to ministry.”

Martin Luther King Jr. called C.T. Vivian the greatest preacher that ever lived. Family Photo


icon to expand image


That night, Vivian went home to tell his wife what happened, but she had some news for him as well. She told him that she was pregnant. Vivian’s immediate response was that he should not to go to seminary, but Octavia persuaded him that he should, that everything would be all right.

“My wife said to me, ‘Whose faith is in question now?’” Vivian recalled. “And, so I ended up going.”

He left his young family behind to begin his religious studies at the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville.

There, he grew more involved in the burgeoning civil rights movement, aligning himself with then-unknowns Diane Nash, Bernard LaFayette and John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

In 1961, after the initial Freedom Rides to challenge segregationist interstate transportation laws had collapsed in the face of threats and violence, SNCC — which Vivian was now a member of — took over and continued them.

Those rides, which led to Vivian being arrested and shipped to Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Prison, marked the beginning of his major national movement work.

In 1965, in his role as national director of affiliates for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he traveled to Selma, Alabama. The grainy black-and-white footage of his famous encounter with the sheriff shows Clark and his deputies glaring at Vivian from just inches away.

“Whenever anyone does not have the right to vote, then every man is hurt,” Vivian lectured the sheriff, adding that the only reason Clark retained the post was that he refused to let Black people vote. “You don’t want them to register because you would no longer be able to use your brutality on them.”

Clark turned his back on Vivian, who was quick to use the slight to his advantage.

“You can turn your back on me, but you cannot turn your back on the idea of justice. You can turn your back now, and you can keep the club in your hand, but you cannot beat down justice,” Vivian said.

A few seconds later, a scuffle erupts. The camera bobs up and down and refocuses just in time to catch Clark hitting Vivian in the face.

That image was broadcast on news stations around the country that night, shocking many Americans. Instead of retaliating with violence or backing down, Vivian stood back up and faced Clark and the deputies again.

“We’re willing to be beaten for democracy, and you misuse democracy in the street,” Vivian said, with blood streaming from his face. “You beat people bloody in order so they will not have the privilege to vote.”

Clark later said he could not remember hitting Vivian, but that he went to the doctor soon after and discovered he had fractured a finger on his left hand.

The voter registration campaign at the Dallas County courthouse was followed by the march from Selma to Montgomery, pivotal events in the passage, later that year, of the Voting Rights Act.

Vivian said he was proud of his contributions in the 1950s and early 1960s, but he also wanted to be remembered for his work in the years that followed. He pastored churches and continued fighting for racial justice in cities across the nation through the 1970s, moving his family to Nashville, Chattanooga, Atlanta and Chicago.

He often spoke with pride about the program he founded while living in Alabama called VISION. He described it as a precursor to Upward Bound, an academic program designed to help low-income students prepare for college. He also founded a diversity consulting firm in Atlanta in 1974 — at a time when few people talked openly about racial, gender and cultural inclusion in the workplace and other social settings.

The Rev. C.T. Vivian of Atlanta was a key leaders in the civil rights movement.  JASON GETZ / JGETZ@AJC.COM


icon to expand image


Vivian’s youngest son, Albert, now runs the company, called Basic Diversity.

“(Dad) made sure that we understood we should always stand up for what is right, no matter what,” Albert Vivian said. “He also taught us that, if anyone is being mistreated because of their race or culture, we better stand up and get involved. He told us we could not just stand by and watch.”

In 1975, Vivian permanently settled in Atlanta. In his southwest Atlanta home, he amassed an amazing private library of books by Black authors and scholars.

In 2018, Vivian told the AJC that his love of books grew out of visiting the local library in Macomb as a boy, where he was one of the few Black people. Books about Black people, however, were hard to find.

One afternoon, on the highest bookshelf in the library, he found an obscure book that chronicled the lives of extraordinary Black men and women.

“That was the only book in that library that was totally Black,” Vivian said. “We were always seen through the eyes of whites.”

Vivian’s vast home library of more than 6,000 volumes contained first editions by the likes of Ralph Ellison, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes and W.E.B. Dubois. He also had an autographed copy of Phillis Wheatley’s “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral,” the first known book authored by an African American.

Vivian has since donated his collection to the National Monuments Foundation for inclusion in the Peace Column, the centerpiece of the upcoming Rodney Cook Sr. Park in Vine City.

C.T. Vivian holds his Presidential Medal of Freedom 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

icon to expand image

In the summer of 2013, Vivian got a call from the White House. It was Obama, asking Vivian if he would accept the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Standing in the White House’s ornate East Room on Nov. 20, 2013, Vivian smiled gently when Obama carefully placed the medal around his neck.

An announcer read a citation describing Vivian’s contributions to the nation. It hailed him as a “stalwart activist” with an “overwhelming commitment to social justice.”

“Whether at a lunch counter, on a Freedom Ride, or behind the bars of a prison cell, he was unafraid to take bold action in the face of fierce resistance,” the citation said. “His legacy of combating injustice will shine as an example for generations to come.”

Vivian is survived by daughters JoAnna Walker, Denise Morse, Kira Holden and Charisse Thornton, sons Mark Vivian and Albert Vivian, and several grandchildren.