President Barack Obama delivers awards the 2013 Presidential Medal of Freedom to Cordy Tindell “C.T.” Vivian, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House, Nov. 20, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

Presidential Freedom awardee, Civil Rights general, Rev. C.T. Vivian passes at 95

13 days before turning 96-years-old, Rev. C.T. Vivian died in his Atlanta home of natural causes.

The passing of Reverend C.T. Vivian on Friday, July 17, leaves a rich tradition of activism and faith. In memory of Rev. Vivian, known to be one of the foremost strategists during the Civil Rights era, alongside Ella Baker and Bayard Rustin, the Martin Luther King Center posted a message via Twitter: “Rev. C.T. Vivian. Courageous. Brilliant. Sacrificial. A powerfully well-lived life that lifted humanity. We will miss you. Thank you, sir.”

Included in decades of Civil Rights work, Rev. Vivian served on a number of initiatives to forge racial justice, economic parity and equality in the US. “C.T. Vivian was a monumental figure in the history of our country and a key leader in advancing the Civil Rights movement. His strength and courage were unmatched,” said Southern Poverty Law Center president and Chief Executive Officer Margaret Huang,

Rev. Bernice King added her respects when she wrote, “Reverend C.T. Vivian was a strategic nonviolent leader, a brilliant mind who believed that soul force could overpower physical force. I’m thankful for his legacy of service and influence, including in my father’s life.”

Rise to activism

Born in Boonville, Missouri on July 30, 1924, Cordell Tindell Vivian lived in an agricultural environment during his early years. But as a boy, his family’s home burned down due to arson. Then they lost their farm in the Great Depression. With his father and grandfather dead, Vivian’s matriarchs chose to start over in “the North.”

As a few out of several million Blacks who left the agrarian south, they setted in Macomb, a town offering non-segregated education. Going through the local educational school system, Rev. Vivian started activist work as a college student in Illinois. Although he moved to Preoria before finishing his studies, the work he did at Western Illinois University activated a life of advocacy work.

While in Preoria, Rev. Vivian participated in demonstrations to desegregate the city by sitting at “whites-only” lunch counters in 1947. In 1955, he enrolled into American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville to become an ordained minister. This led him to further fuse his faith and activism. 

Making many trips down South as a key organizer of the Freedom Riders campaigns, Rev. Vivian was subject to and saw violence at the hands of police and white anti-protesters. So much so, in 1961, his arrest at a Mississippi demonstration led to his detainment in Parchman Prison. While there, Rev. Vivian was beaten so bad he almost died.

Years later, while speaking to the Church of Antioch, Rev. Vivian called the Civil Rights era a “moral and spiritual movement” that was a response of “America’s sin,” of slavery and systemic injustices years later. He said “It really ripped the clothing off of a nation that liked to brag on itself. That went to church on Sunday but left love at the door so it could keep doing the same thing on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.”

Staying the course

In one of Rev. Vivian’s planned protests in Alabama, local deacon and demonstrator Jimmie Lee Jackson and his family fled an evening rally disrupted by law enforcement. After shooting out street lights, troopers began to brutalize participants.

In the melee, Jackson, his 16-year-old sister, Emma Jean, their mother Viola, and grandfather, Cager Lee, sought refuge in nearby Mack’s cafe. Officers chased the family then began to beat Jackson once they cornered them in the eatery. When Jackson’s mother, Viola, interceded, troopers turned their police clubs on her. Then Jackson came to his mother’s aid, but was shot twice in the stomach. While he languished in the hospital, Jackson was served an arrest warrant.  He died eight days. 

Jackson’s 1965 killing sparked the Selma to Montgomery marches. In turn, Rev. Vivian went deeper into his activism. During the Civil Rights movement, he went on to be one of the most significant leaders in the Southern Christian Leadership Council and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). At the movement’s height, he served as the national director of affiliates for SCLC under Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s leadership. In that capacity, Rev. Vivian supervised 85 local affiliate chapters. 

One of his major roles was working as a strategist to get the Civil Rights bill and Voting Rights act passed. Today, both legislations have been central laws to fight racial discrimination and protect democracy.

After the Civil Rights era, Rev. C.T. Vivian made his home in Atlanta where he participated in a number of initiatives. While there, he co-founded black-owned, Atlanta-based Capital City Bank, and served as counsel to President Jimmy Carter. In 2008, he launched the  C. T. Vivian Leadership Institute. That same year, he spearheaded fund-raising efforts to save Morris Brown College, a historically black institution that became dangerously close to shutting down.

In 2013, Rev. Vivian was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama who called Rev. Vivian’s passing a “well-deserved rest.”

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