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A Real Fighter for the People, the Rev. Dr. C.T. Vivian,1924-2020

Cordy Tindell (C.T.) Vivian was born on July 30, 1924 in Howard County, Missouri. As a small boy he migrated with his mother to Macomb, Illinois, where he attended Lincoln Grade School and Edison Junior High. Vivian graduated from Macomb High School in 1942 and went on to attend Western Illinois University in Macomb, where he worked as the sports editor for the school newspaper. He graduated from Western Illinois with a B.A. in Education.

C.T. Vivian’s first professional job was as a recreation director for the Carver Community Center in Peoria, Illinois. In 1947 Vivian lead his first sit-in demonstrations, which successfully integrated Peoria’s Barton’s Cafeteria, thereby winning his first non-violent, direct-action movement.

While studying for the ministry at American Baptist College in Nashville, Tennessee in 1959, Vivian met Rev. James Lawson, who was teaching Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent direct-action strategy to the Student Central Committee. Diane Nash, Bernard Lafayette, James Bevel, James Forman, John Lewis and other students from American Baptist College, Fisk University and Tennessee State University executed a systematic non-violent campaign for justice. On April 19, 1960, 4000 demonstrators marched on Nashville, Tennessee City Hall where C. T. Vivian and Diane Nash challenged Nashville Mayor Ben West on racial injustice in Nashville. As a result, Mayor West publicly agreed that racial discrimination was morally wrong.

In 1961, Vivian, now a member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) participated in Freedom Rides. In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. named him National Director of Affiliates. In 1965 an incident that would make national news, Vivian confronted Sheriff Jim Clark on the steps of the Selma courthouse during a voter registration drive. The summer following the Selma Movement, Vivian developed, organized and launched VISION, an educational program that assisted over 700 Alabama Students with attending college on scholarship. VISION would later be known as Upward Bound.

Rev. Vivian, once known as a Christian journalist, is now best known for his work with Martin Luther King, Jr. As National Director of Affiliates and strategist for the southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) organization, he truly helped change the nation. In Birmingham, his work helped to enact the Civil Rights Bill and in Selma, the Voting Rights Bill. Vivian was also deeply involved in other movements including those in Danville, Virginia; St. Augustine, Florida; and Chicago, Illinois. In 1970, Vivian authored the first book written by a member of King’s staff entitled “Black Power and the American Myth”.

Rev. Vivian returned to the realm of seminary education as the Dean of Divinity at Shaw University Seminary. There, he originated and acquired funding for an unprecedented national level program which became the basis of his doctoral work; Seminary Without Walls.

Vivian’s many leadership roles included serving on the boards of the Center for Democratic Renewal and the National Voting Rights Museum. He founded BASIC Diversity, Inc. the nation’s oldest diversity consulting firm. He has provided civil rights counsel to Presidents Johnson, Carter, Reagan, Clinton and Obama. He has lectured on racial justice and democracy throughout the world.

The New School for Social Research named Vivian “…spiritual leader, apostle of social justice, strategist of the civil rights movement … for decades he has been in the vanguard of the struggle for racial equality in America.” The New School also presented him with one of five honorary degrees.

Rev. Vivian is featured throughout the PBS acclaimed documentary, Eyes on the Prize (1987-2006). PBS later produced a full-length presentation, The Healing Ministry of the Rev. Dr. C. T. Vivian. He is also featured as both an activist and analyst in the series The People’s Century (PBS/WGVH, 1998), and in the Tom Brokaw documentary, King (History Channel, 2008).

In 2007, then Senator Barack Obama spoke at historic Brown Chapel A.M.E. church in Selma, Alabama, recognizing and honoring Rev. C. T. Vivian by quoting the works of Dr. Martin L. King, Jr. Dr. King called Rev. Vivian “the greatest preacher to ever live.” Six years later; in November 2013, President Barack Obama, again honored Rev. Vivian for his vision and leadership in the fight for justice by awarding him with the Nation’s highest civilian honor – The Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In 2008, Rev. Vivian founded the C.T. Vivian Leadership Institute, Inc. to create a model of leadership and to train and educate the next generation of grassroots leaders inspired to mobilize a constituency. The Institute is based in Atlanta, Georgia.

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