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C.T. Vivian (1924–2020), civil rights leader who worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

by Linnea Crowther

Rev. C.T. Vivian was one of the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, who worked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to organize sit-ins and marches in the pursuit of equality.

A lifetime commitment to justice

Vivian joined his first protest well before the Civil Rights Movement was on the national radar – in 1947, he began participating in sit-ins at a restaurant in his home of Peoria, Illinois, which didn’t allow Black customers. While studying to become a minister at the American Baptist Seminary in Nashville, Vivian became more deeply involved in the movement, joining the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and participating in Freedom Rides. In Selma, Alabama in 1965, Vivian protested for voting rights, gaining nationwide attention when local Sheriff Jim Clark punched him in the nose in front of national news cameras, knocking him down. Vivian quietly got back up and continued speaking about democracy.

Vivian became a leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference alongside Dr. King. In the 1960s, he developed an educational program to send Alabama students to college with scholarships – this program, Vision, evolved into the federally-funded Upward Bound. Vivian helped found organizations including the Black Action Strategies and Information Center, the Center for Democratic Renewal, and the Black-owned Capitol City Bank and Trust Co. He wrote the 1970 book “Black Power and the American Myth,” and in 2008 he organized a fundraiser that saved the struggling Atlanta HBCU Morris Brown College. In 2013, Vivian was honored wit the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.

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Vivian on his confrontation with Sheriff Clark

“I got down on my knees and said, ‘Thank you, Lord’ — not because I was alive, but because I had done what I should do, and I’d done it well. Even when I got knocked down, I stood back up. I’d stood up to the powers that be, and I did it nonviolently.” —as quoted in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

What people said about him

Full obituary: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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