The Rev. C.T. Vivian, a civil rights leader whose close association with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. helped fuel efforts toward achieving racial equality, died Friday at the age of 95 years old. The New York Times reported that two of Vivian’s daughters confirmed their father’s death. The cause of death was not immediately reported, but the Times said Vivian had been in hospice care.
Vivian, who was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2013, played a crucial role in helping to register Black voters in Selma, Alabama, in 1965, nearly two decades after pushing for integration. Those were but two aspects of Vivian’s illustrious career as a public servant and minister that Obama referenced when presenting him with the highest award a civilian can receive.
In addition to the aforementioned entries on Vivian’s impressive resume, he was also a major supporter of integration, one of the original Freedom Riders as well as an esteemed member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that played an outsized role in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
Vivian was on the front lines of the fight for civil rights — a fight that often turned violent in the face of nonviolent protests.
“Like his followers, Mr. Vivian was arrested often, jailed and beaten. In 1961, at the end of a violence-plagued, interracial Freedom Ride to Jackson, Mr. Vivian was dispatched to the Hinds County Prison Farm, where he was brutally beaten by guards,” the New York Times wrote in its obituary.
Cordy Tindell (C.T.) Vivian was born July 30, 1924 in Missouri but ultimately made Atlanta his home. The first protest he participated in was in 1947, when, as a young man, he worked to desegregate a cafeteria in Peoria, Ilinois, after he dropped out of Western Illinois University. Peoria is also where he both met Octavia Geans, his eventual wife, and first began preaching. They had six children together before she died in 2011. Vivian is survived by five of his children. His son, Cordy Jr. died in 2010.
Tributes to Vivian began pouring in across social media after his death was announced Friday morning.
“Rev. #CTVivian is gone to be with God. It is heaven’s gain&our loss,” Rev. Jesse Jackson tweeted. “He was one of the tallest trees in the civil rights forest.He never stopped dreaming.He never stopped fighting. We are better because he came this way. He was one of my mentors. I miss him so much already. #RIP”
Bernie King, Rev. King’s daughter, tweeted: “Wow. You gave so much to make us better. I’m grateful and I will miss you.”
She added in a subsequent tweet: “Reverend C.T. Vivian was a strategic nonviolent leader, a brilliant mind who believed that soul force could overpower physical force. I’m thankful for his legacy of service and influence, including in my father’s life.”