The Rev. Dr. C.T. Vivian (1924–2020), born Cordy Tindell Vivian in Boonville, Missouri, was a civil rights activist and Baptist minister who promoted the principle of nonviolence in his work to create change in the racial fabric of the United States. In the late 1940s, after leaving Western Illinois University in Macomb, Illinois, he began his work in Peoria, where he helped integrate restaurants. In the 1950s, in Nashville, Tennessee, he began working with Martin Luther King, Jr., leading campaigns against segregation in that capital city. During the next decade, he took his campaign to many cities in the South, including Chattanooga, Jackson, Mississippi, Birmingham, Alabama, Danville, Virginia, and St. Augustine, Florida. He participated with the Freedom Riders, traveling on interstate buses to protest segregated bus terminals, often resulting in beatings and incarceration. During his time in Nashville, with the help of his church, he attended American Baptist Theological Seminary.
During the early 1960s, C.T. was national director of affiliates for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, where he was well known for his strategies, planning, and methods that preceded the actions he led for civil rights, which eventually led to passage of the Civil Rights Act. In February 1965, while standing on the steps of the courthouse in Selma, Alabama, speaking about securing voting rights for black Americans after Sheriff Jim Clark blocked his entrance to the courthouse, Clark punched C.T. in the mouth, knocking him to the ground. C.T. stood up and continued his speech, at which point he was arrested. The episode was aired on national television and served as fuel in organizing the famous march from Selma to Montgomery. Before the end of 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act.
During this same time, C.T. also developed a college readiness program—Vision—to help "take care of the kids that were kicked out of school simply because they protested racism." In the 1970s, his Vision program became the guide for the U.S. Department of Education when it created Upward Bound, a program designed to improve high school and college graduation rates in underserved communities. Later in the 1970s, C.T. founded an anti-Ku Klux Klan organization, which became known as the Center for Democratic Renewal.
In 1966, C.T. directed the Urban Training Center for Christian Missions in Chicago and later coordinated the Coalition for United Community Action, where he directed a campaign against racism in labor unions and also helped mediate a truce among gangs in the city. In 1972, C.T. moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, where he served as director of Seminary Without Walls at Shaw University Divinity School.
In 2008, C.T. founded the C.T. Vivian Leadership Institute. Based in Atlanta, Georgia, the non-profit organization is dedicated to the development and sustainability of communities and serves as a hub for centralizing programs and services and coordinating with local organizations to serve the needs of the community.
In 2013, for his vision and leadership in the struggle for justice, C.T. received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barrack Obama. He won many other awards, including the Martin Luther King, Jr. Humanitarian Award, the National Jewish Labor Award, and the Trumpet Award.
Over the years, C.T. provided counsel to several presidents—Johnson, Carter, Reagan, and Clinton—and served on several non-profit organization boards.
C.T. died from natural causes at his home in Atlanta, Georgia, on July 17, 2020, the same day that civil rights activist and congressman John Lewis died in the same city. On July 22nd, well wishers lined the streets of Atlanta as a horse-drawn carriage took C.T.'s casket from a memorial service at the Georgia Capitol to King's tomb in Atlanta and to The King Center. He was laid to rest on July 23rd following a service at Providence Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta at which many eulogies lifted up this humble man's courage, as evident in the following spoken words.
Former Ambassador to the United Nations and former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young (videotaped because of the coronavirus): "He didn't want attention, he didn't want money, he only wanted to do God's will and bring out the best in these United States of America and its people regardless of their race, creed, color or national origin."
Former Vice President Joe Biden (videotaped because of the coronavirus): "C.T. was truly a remarkable man, a man whose physical courage was exceeded only by his moral courage, whose capacity for love overwhelmed incredible hatreds, whose faith and the power of nonviolence helped forever change our nation."
Television personality and author Oprah Winfrey (videotaped because of the coronavirus): "In his presence, we were always learning more about our country, ourselves and what it means to stand for what is right. He was a giant for justice."