This obituary was originally published by the Associated Press on July 17, 2020.
The Rev. C.T. Vivian, a civil rights veteran who worked alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and served as head of the organization co-founded by the civil rights icon, has died. Vivian died at home in Atlanta of natural causes Friday morning, his friend and business partner Don Rivers confirmed to The Associated Press. Vivian was 95.
His civil rights work stretched back more than six decades, to his first sit-in demonstrations in the 1940s in Peoria, Ill. He met King soon after the budding civil rights leader’s victory in the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott. Vivian became an active member of what would become the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
“He has always been one of the people who had the most insight, wisdom, integrity and dedication,” said Andrew Young, who also worked alongside King. Cordy Tindell Vivian was born July 28, 1924, in Howard County, Mo., but moved to Macomb, Ill., with his mother when he was still a young boy.
As a young theology student at the American Baptist College in Nashville, Tenn., Vivian helped organize that city’s first sit-ins, and later participated in the Freedom Rides in Mississippi. Under King’s leadership at SCLC, Vivian was national director of affiliates, and after King’s death in 1968, he continued to serve the organization.
Though already a veteran of the movement, Vivian returned to lead the SCLC in 2012 as its interim president. Some saw his return to leadership as lending renewed credibility and a tangible link to the era after the SCLC stagnated for years due to financial mismanagement and infighting. “There must always be the understanding of what Martin had in mind for this organization,” Vivian said in a 2012 interview. “Nonviolent, direct action makes us successful. We learned how to solve social problems without violence. We cannot allow the nation or the world to ever forget that.” Vivian had a stroke about two months ago but seemed to recover, Rivers said. Then, “he just stopped eating,” he said.
Rivers, 67, said he was 21 when he met Vivian at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. Back then, he worked as an audio director when Vivian was the dean of the university’s divinity school. The two remained close over the years and Rivers said he handled the business side of Vivian’s work. “He’s such a nice, gentle, courageous man,” Rivers said, adding that the reverend wasn’t in it for the money but, “he was always giving, giving, giving.”
President Barack Obama honored Vivian the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013. The reverend had continued to advocate for justice and equality in recent years.