The Reverend Doctor Cordy Tindell “C.T.” Vivian — a giant of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s as a field lieutenant and close friend of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and a lifelong advocate for racial justice — died in Atlanta on Friday, July 17, 2020, at the age of 95.
For his Christian ministry, his commitment to nonviolence, and his decades of leadership and advocacy for racial justice, North Park University awarded Vivian an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree at Commencement on May 12, 2007. The presentation was given by Dr. Mary Trujillo, Professor Emeritus of Communications Arts.
“It is simply not possible to list in this short time all the activities and accomplishments of Rev. C.T. Vivian,” Dr. Trujillo said in presenting the degree. “Nor is it possible to fully grasp the degree of self-sacrifice, courage, and determination that he possesses. The full impact of the work of C.T. Vivian is of such magnitude that it can only be seen from the perspective of history.”
Vivian was born on July 30, 1924, in Boonville, Missouri, and moved as a child to Macomb, Illinois, where he graduated from Macomb High School in 1942 and attended Western Illinois University. He participated in the desegregation of Barton’s Cafeteria in Peoria in 1947. He studied and prepared for ministry at the American Baptist College in Nashville, Tennessee, where he learned Mohandas Gandhi’s nonviolent direct-action strategy and joined the Nashville Student Movement in 1959 — launching what was to become a storied career as an icon of peaceful protest and the Civil Rights Movement.
Vivian helped found the Nashville Christian Leadership Conference and organized the first sit-ins in that city. In 1960 he led 4,000 peaceful demonstrators to City Hall where he met with Nashville Mayor Ben West. As a result of that meeting, West publicly declared that racial discrimination is morally wrong. Vivian participated in the Freedom Rides, in which activists rode interstate buses into the Southern states to protest their failure to comply with U.S. Supreme Court rulings that banned segregated public transportation. He worked with King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, serving as the national director of affiliates. After the Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches in 1965, Vivian launched an educational program that gave college scholarships to 702 Alabama students. That program later became Upward Bound, a federal program to provide college opportunities for low-income first-generation students.
In 1970, Vivian published Black Power and the American Myth, the first book about the Civil Rights Movement written by a member of King’s inner circle. In it he wrote that “It was Martin Luther King who removed the Black struggle from the economic realm and placed it in a moral and spiritual context. It was on this plane that The Movement first confronted the conscience of the nation.”
After leaving Dr. King’s Executive Staff, Dr. Vivian trained ministers and developed the urban curriculum for seminaries throughout the nation at the Urban Training Center in Chicago. He returned to seminary education as the Dean of Divinity at Shaw University Seminary.
In 1977 Vivian founded a consultancy called BASICS, the Black Action Strategies and Information Center, and in 1979 with Anne Braden of Louisville, Kentucky, he founded the National Anti-Klan Network, which later became the Center for Democratic Renewal, where people of all races worked together to combat white supremacist activities. He served in Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign in 1984, as national deputy director for clergy. Jackson had been one of Vivian’s first students at the Urban Training Center.
Vivian was an analyst in the 14-part PBS civil rights documentary Eyes on the Prize and was the subject of a PBS special, The Healing Ministry of Dr. C.T. Vivian.
President Barack Obama — speaking at Selma’s Brown Chapel on the March 2007, anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery marches — recognized Vivian in his opening remarks, saying King had referred to Vivian as “the greatest preacher to ever live.”
In 2008, Vivian founded the C.T. Vivian Leadership Institute to train a new generation of grass-roots leaders.
On August 8, 2013, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama.
Vivian died on the same day as his friend and fellow civil rights leader, U.S. Representative John Lewis.
Peace be to the memories of Rev. Dr. C.T. Vivian and Rep. John Lewis.