Civil Rights icon, leader Rev. C.T. Vivian dies at age of 95

Remembering Civil Rights icon C.T. Vivian

ATLANTA — Longtime Civil Rights leader and icon Rev. C.T. Vivian has died at the age of 95. His family confirmed Vivian’s death Friday morning.

He was known by many as “The Quiet Warrior,” a friend and confidant of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and a central figure of the civil rights movement.

We will be remembering the Reverend’s lasting mark on the Civil Rights Movement, throughout the day on Channel 2 Action News.

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Cordy Tindell Vivian was born July 30, 1924, in Boonville, Missouri, the only child of farming parents.

When he was young, the family moved to Macomb, Illinois, in hopes that Vivian could get a better education there.

Vivian had fond memories of his childhood and adolescence in Macomb, a small town in west-central Illinois with an even smaller black population. He was involved in almost every aspect of his community and school, working side-by-side with his white peers.

Vivian said even in his childhood, he was keenly aware of the racial barriers that existed throughout the country.

"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. "At the same time, I was so accepted in my community that only in the social life did I not participate."

After graduating from Macomb High School and then Western Illinois University, Vivian moved to Peoria, Illinois, to work as the assistant boy's director for the Carver Community Center. The years Vivian spent in Peoria would shape the rest of his life: There he met and married his wife of more than 50 years, got involved in the civil rights movement and joined the ministry.

Octavia Geans had taken a job at the Carver Community Center to help with the women's programs.

"My life really began with my wife," Vivian said. He often called her "baby" and proudly showed her portrait to visitors to his art- and book-filled Cascade home.

He also credits Octavia with encouraging him to join the ministry.

Vivian said the call to join the ministry came to him one day while he was working at the Foster & 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."

Vivian left his young family behind to begin his religious studies in Nashville, Tennessee. There, he grew more involved in the burgeoning civil rights movement.

In Peoria, he and other colleagues had read the pamphlets and other materials on nonviolent direct action, published by CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality. They joined lunch-counter sit-ins and other demonstrations. But Vivian was drawn deeper into the movement when he moved to Nashville.

In Tennessee, he met and worked with other young men and women who also would become famous for their efforts in the movement, leaders such as Bernard Lafayette and John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

In 1965, already active in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he traveled to Selma, Alabama, to participate in one of the most important events in the civil rights movement.

"One of the reasons I came to Selma and got involved with Dr. King at that level was because I talked to C.T. Vivian, and he asked me to come down," said the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr.

"He was one of the phenomenal leaders in Dr. King's cabinet," Jackson said. "He's known to many of us as the 'resident theologian' because of how profound he is in both his political and biblical exegesis."

The grainy black-and-white footage from that mid-February day when Vivian had his famous encounter at the Selma courthouse shows him speaking passionately about voting rights while Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark and his deputies glare at him just inches away.

"You can't keep anyone from voting in the United States without hurting the rights of all the other citizens," Vivian says in the film. "Democracy is built on this. This is why every man has the right to vote, regardless."

A few seconds later, a scuffle erupts. The camera bobs up and down and refocuses just in time to catch Clark hit 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 says, with blood streaming from his face. "You beat people bloody in order so they will not have the privilege to vote."

In the "Eyes on the Prize" film documentary series (1987), Clark said that 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 from the impact of his blow.

For Vivian, that confrontation marked a high point in his life.

"Everything I am as a minister, as an African American, as a civil rights activist and a struggler for justice for everyone came together in that moment," he said.

The Rev. Joseph Lowery, who co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with King in 1957, said that he sometimes teased Vivian about his courthouse confrontation.

"I always tell C.T. that Jim Clark didn't hit him," Lowery said with a chuckle. "He hit Clark in his fist with his chin."

Lowery remembered the young Vivian as a "very intense worker. He was serious about his commitment to racial justice, and he was fearless and intense." The voter registration campaign at the Dallas County Courthouse was followed by the march from Selma to Montgomery, beginning on March 7, 1965 -- Bloody Sunday.

The attention from the voter registration drives and the violence that erupted around the march caught the attention of President Lyndon B. Johnson. In a televised speech, he used the language of the movement to tell the nation that "we shall overcome."

Vivian, in "Eyes on the Prize," recounted watching that speech with King.

"We were all sitting around together, and Martin was sitting in a chair looking toward the television set and when LBJ said "we shall overcome," we all cheered and I looked over at Martin," Vivian said.

"Martin was very quietly sitting in his chair, and a tear ran down his cheek. It was a victory like no other. It was an affirmation of the movement."

Johnson signed the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 that August.

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.

After leaving King's executive staff, he moved to Chicago to direct the Urban Training Center, where he trained ministers and developed curriculum for seminars throughout the United States.

He then returned to seminary, as the dean of divinity at Shaw University where he originated and acquired funding for a national level program -- Seminary without Walls -- the basis of his doctoral work.

He later founded Basic Diversity Inc., a cultural diversity training and consulting firm that has been operating nationally for more than 40 years. It is best known for its race awareness workshop, deemed the most effective race awareness seminar in the country.

In 1975, Vivian returned to Atlanta and settled here permanently.

In 2008, he founded and incorporated the C.T. Vivian Leadership Institute to create a model leadership culture based in Atlanta, with a focus on empowerment training through education.

In 2013, Vivian was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.

“He is still in the action, pushing us closer to our national goals” Obama said about Vivian, who was 89 at the time.

“These are the men and women whose lives remind us of the beauty of the human spirit.”

During his introduction, Obama said in America’s quest for civil rights in the 1940s through the 1960s, “time and again Rev. Vivian was among the first to go in.”

“We changed America,” Vivian said. “America didn’t change itself. We changed America. It may have been out of desperation, but we did it.”

Local leaders remember a “man of action:”

Channel 2 Anchor Monica Pearson said she considered C.T. Vivian a friend and was there when he celebrated his 85th birthday.

“At the age of 23, he put his job on the line to successfully integrate Barton’s Cafeteria,” Pearson said. “He said he felt this calling, and he said to me, ‘When you’re called, you go get trained.‘”

Dr. Gerald Durley, the longtime pastor of Providence Missionary, will deliver Vivian’s eulogy. The two met on the campus of Tennessee State University and were lifelong friends.

“He was always serious about uplifting people economically and educationally,” Durley said. “C.T. was always organizing. He was always strategizing and he could strategize and mobilize and motivate you. When you would sit down, he would always say, ‘Now what are you going to do about it?”

Pearson said that after a life defined by a higher calling to improve racial justice and education, receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama was an asterisk. he wife Octavia and their six children were his world.

“More than anything, he was a man of family and faith,” Pearson said.

“C.T. Vivian probably will be larger in death than he was in life, because he never sought the limelight,” Durley said.

Channel 2′s Tom Jones talked to ambassador Andrew Young, who marched alongside Vivian and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on many occasions.

Young told Jones that Vivian was so focused on the cause that he manged to smile and not fight back, which helped move this nation forward.

“He was very intentional and intense about everything,” Young said. “I never saw C.T. sad. He always had a smile. He always had a laugh.”

Young said Vivian was even happy about the historic moment when Sheriff Jim Clark punched him in the face as he spoke about voting rights in Selma in 1965.

“Once he got out of the scene, he was happy about it,” Young said, likely because the punch was televised and played a major role in the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.

Jones also spoke to former Channel 2 Anchor John Pruitt about Vivian’s incredible contributions.

“He was an extremely eloquent man, and certainly one of the lions of the Civil Rights Movement,” Pruitt said.

Pruitt said Vivian was one of Dr. King’s first lieutenants, offering sage advice and helping advance the cause of equality.

“It’s so sad to see him part from the scene, but he leaves behind a legacy that none of us will forget,” Pruitt said.

Young said he talked to Vivian a few weeks ago and he was still very positive.

“He lived a life of peace, and he died a peaceful death,” Young said.