Rev. C.T. Vivian, Freedom Rides organizer and key adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., dies at 95

Free Press wire reports | 7/23/2020, 6 p.m.
The Rev. C.T. Vivian, an early and key adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who organized pivotal civil rights ...
Rev. Vivian

ATLANTA - The Rev. C.T. Vivian, an early and key adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who organized pivotal civil rights campaigns and spent decades advocating for justice and equality, died Friday, July 17, 2020, the same day as fellow civil rights leader Congressman John Lewis of Georgia.

The 95-year-old Rev. Vivian, a former interim president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that Dr. King co-founded, began staging sit-ins against segregation in Peoria, Ill., in the 1940s — a dozen years before lunch counter protests by college students made national news. He met Dr. King soon after the budding civil rights leader spearheaded the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, and helped translate ideas into action by organizing the Freedom Rides that forced federal intervention across the South.

Rev. Vivian boldly challenged a segregationist sheriff while trying to register Black voters in Selma, Ala., where hundreds, then thousands, later marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

“You can turn your back now and you can keep your club in your hand, but you cannot beat down justice. And we will register to vote because as citizens of these United States we have the right to do it,” Rev. Vivian declared, wagging his index finger at Sheriff Jim Clark as the cameras rolled.

The sheriff then punched him, and news coverage of the assault helped turned a local registration drive into a national phenomenon.

Former diplomat and Congressman Andrew Young, another close confidante of Dr. King, said Rev. Vivian was always “one of the people who had the most insight, wisdom, integrity and dedication.”

Former President Obama, who honored Rev. Vivian with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013, tweeted last Friday that Rev. Vivian “was always one of the first in the action — a Freedom Rider, a marcher in Selma, beaten, jailed, almost killed, absorbing blows in hopes that fewer of us would have to.”

“He waged nonviolent campaigns for integration across the South, and campaigns for economic justice throughout the North, knowing that even after the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act that he helped win, our long journey to equality was nowhere near finished,” President Obama wrote.

He also drew a direct line from Rev. Vivian “and all the heroes in that Civil Rights Generation” to today’s generation of activists, saying, “I have to imagine that seeing the largest protest movement in history unfold over his final months gave the Reverend a final dose of hope.”

Speaking with students in Tennessee 50 years after the Voting Rights Act was signed into law, Rev. Vivian urged them to act strategically as they advocated for justice and equality. The Civil Rights Movement was effective not only because of its nonviolence, but because activists made sure their messages were amplified, he said.

“This is what made the movement: Our voice was really heard. But it didn’t happen by accident; we made certain it was heard,” Rev. Vivian said.

Born Cordy Tindell Vivian on July 28, 1924, in Howard County, Mo., Rev. Vivian moved as a young boy to Macomb, Ill., with his mother. He studied theology alongside future civil rights leader and U.S. Congressman John Lewis at the American Baptist College in Nashville, Tenn., where they trained waves of activists in nonviolent protest.

Rev. Vivian continued to serve in the SCLC after Dr. King’s assassination in 1968, and became its interim president in 2012, lending renewed credibility after the organization stagnated for years. He also co- founded VISION, the precursor to Outward Bound; the Center for Democratic Renewal; and a consulting firm that encouraged improvements in race relations.

Rev. Vivian died at home in Atlanta of natural causes, his friend and business partner Don Rivers confirmed. Rev. Vivian had a stroke about two months ago but seemed to recover, Mr. Rivers said. Then, “he just stopped eating,” he said.

Mr. Rivers, 67, said he was 21 when he met Rev. Vivian at Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C. Back then, he worked as

an audio director when Rev. Vivian was the dean of the university’s divinity school. The two remained close over the years and Mr. Rivers said he handled the business side of Rev. Vivian’s work.

“He’s such a nice, gentle, courageous man,” Mr. Rivers said, adding that the reverend wasn’t in it for the money. “He was always giving, giving, giving.”

A funeral service will be held 11 a.m. Thursday, July 23, at Providence Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta, and is to be will be streamed live online and broadcast by WSB-TV in Atlanta at WSBTV.com. The in-person service will be open only to family because of the coronavirus.