The Rev. C.T. Vivian uses an intercom with the Rev. James Lawson on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., to discuss the experiences they encountered in 1961 as Freedom Riders, groups of college students who defied segregation on interstate buses across the American South. (Lavondia Majors/The Tennessean via AP)

By Lenore T. Adkins
Special to the AFRO

From a young age, the Rev. C.T. Vivian understood the power of nonviolence. 

When he was growing up in Illinois, he punched a White boy who frequently taunted him, but all the boy could do was look at him, said the Rev. Dr. Gerald L. Durley, Rev. Vivian’s longtime pastor and pastor emeritus of Providence Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta. 

So the young Vivian punched him a second time and the boy didn’t do anything. Seeing what happened when someone didn’t fight back, he stopped hitting the boy and they went on to become lifelong friends, Durley told the AFRO

“If it was an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, we would be a blind, toothless society,” Durley said in explaining the young man’s reasoning. 

It was a lesson Rev. Vivian would carry for the rest of his days. 

He was 95 when he died July 17 in Atlanta, the same day as his friend John Lewis, celebrated civil rights icon and longtime Georgia congressman.

Born Cordy Tindell Vivian in Missouri on July 30, 1924, the minister, author and organizer pushed people in the ways of nonviolent resistance, leading by example. His work started in Peoria, Illinois where he planned some of the Civil Rights Movement’s first sit-ins in the late 1940s and culminated in 1965 in Selma, Ala., where a sheriff sucker-punched him on camera. 

“He was one of the tallest trees in the civil rights forest,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson tweeted after Rev. Vivian’s death, calling him a mentor. “He never stopped dreaming. He never stopped fighting. We are better because he came this way.”

Civil rights icon and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, the Rev. C .T. Vivian, who died July 17, 2020, is shown with his mentee, the Rev. Dr. George E. Holmes. (Courtesy Photo)

It was in Nashville that he first worked with Martin Luther King Jr. in the mid-to-late 1950s, leading a series of desegregation campaigns in the Tennessee capital. 

His work took him to multiple cities throughout the South, including Jackson, Miss., Chattanooga, Tenn. and Birmingham, Ala. At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, he was arrested countless times and brutally beaten by police officers all over the South.

As a top member of the Freedom Riders — a collection of activists who protested segregated bus terminals by riding interstate buses — he was often beaten and arrested, willing to sacrifice and risk everything for the cause. 

In 1963, he became national director of affiliates for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a job that made him a crucial ally of King and an important organizer of civil rights actions across the South. 

In this role, he famously traveled to Selma to push for voting rights in 1965 when segregationist Sheriff Jim Clark blocked him from entering the Dallas County courthouse. After delivering a sermon from the courthouse steps, telling police they may have clubs, but can’t beat down justice and urging his fellow protestors to register to vote, Clark punched Rev. Vivian in the mouth, knocking him to the ground. He got back up and continued talking, even as police arrested him. 

The punch was seen on live television and several weeks later, thousands of people came together for the march from Selma to Montgomery. That same year, Congress would go on to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

God was an important part of Rev. Vivian’s life and faith undergirded his fight for civil rights, Durley said. 

“C.T. not only had faith in God, but when he saw something was morally wrong, and unethical, he trusted God would take him into that situation, give him the words to say and get him out,” Durley said. 

He was never one to rest on his accomplishments and always wanted to know what more could be done to advance the struggle. He felt the cause was greater than himself and never sought the limelight, said Durley, who was president of the student government association at Tennessee State University when he met the minister in 1950.

“You never saw him on the front line and he was always right there in the middle of things,” Durley said.

Rev. Vivian would go on to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2013. But even then, in recorded remarks he Vivian made before receiving the award, he called on people to think about the good they can do for others. 

“You know whether or not you want to help folk, right,” Vivian said. “And to me, that’s the number one thing. If you’re not changing things for the benefit of the greater society, then you’re not about much anyway, right?  

The Rev. Dr. George E. Holmes, religious chair of the D.C. Democratic party and vice president of the Maple Springs Baptist Bible College, remembers Rev. Vivian as a “quintessential giant theologian who was a mirror reflection of God’s patience, faithfulness and love.” 

“He was destined and determined to usher in a new reality of equality, fairness and justice for all,” Holmes said of his longtime mentor.