C.T. Vivian, civil rights icon, turns 95

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

Ninety-five rarely looked so good.

The Rev. C.T. Vivian, one of the country's leading civil rights figures and a long-time Atlanta resident, will be feted Tuesday with a star-studded birthday tribute marking his 95th birthday.

In 2013, then-President Barack Obama awarded Vivian the highest accolade an American civilian can receive, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

 ortrait of C.T. Vivian at his home on Tuesday, July 25, 2017. On July 30, the civil rights icon will celebrate his 95th birthday. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM


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In 1965, Vivian famously confronted notorious sheriff Jim Clark on the steps of the Dallas (Al.) County Courthouse as he was trying to register blacks in Selma to vote. Clark, a noted segregationist, punched Vivian in the mouth, knocking him to the ground.

As the encounter was being filmed by a news crew, Vivian never retaliated, relying on his non-violence training. Instead, in one of the most iconic images of the civil rights movement, Vivian picked himself up and continued to argue for the right to vote.

“When I was very young and he did sit ins, we knew what was going on, but didn’t fully understand it,” said Vivian’s oldest daughter Jo Anna Walker, who flew in from Peoria. “Then, when we got older and saw how he would get praised for his work, we just thought, ‘he is just daddy’ to us.”

C.T. Vivian holds his Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2017. In 2013, then-President Barack Obama awarded Vivian with the highest accolade an American civilian can receive.  HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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The fundraiser will benefit the C. T. Vivian Leadership Institute, an organization dedicated to developing sustainable programs to revitalize underserved communities.

Former Atlanta Life Insurance Co. public relations executive, Henrietta Antonin, is chairing the event. Ambassador Andrew Young and his wife, Carolyn; as well as Hank and Billye Aaron are serving as honorary co-chairs of the gala, which will be held Tuesday at 6 p.m. at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Atlanta.

“We are all just very proud of my father and so glad that he has been here so long,” Walker said. “This is not a praise celebration. We are just saying thank you. I am very proud of him, as are all of my brothers and sisters.”