Although Rev. Cordy Tindell (C.T.) Vivian, passed on July 17 aged 95, his legacy is sure to endure into the decades. The civil rights great pushed for equality for Black Americans. But his quest for people of his stock to be treated humanely came at great cost spanning beat downs and violent arrests.
“In 1965, Vivian was punched in the mouth by Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark in an incident caught on camera and carried on national news. Vivian later said: ‘Everything I am as a minister, as an African American, as a civil rights activist and a struggler for justice for everyone came together in that moment.’”
As a man of faith, Vivian’s activism was grounded in Christianity but he had the presence of mind to form powerful coalitions with those outside of his faith.
Vivian was also an early adviser to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He studied theology at the American Baptist College in Nashville, Tennessee. Vivian, first worked with Martin Luther King Jr. in the mid-to late 1950s and led a series of campaigns against segregation in the Tennessee capital.
Seeing the liberation of his people as God’s work, he was arrested several times and endured brutal beatings at the hands of officers throughout the South during the height of the civil rights movement.
The minister and activist recalled in an oral history recorded in 2011: “In no way would we allow nonviolence to be destroyed by violence.”
As an advocate of nonviolent resistance, Vivian organized some of the civil rights movement’s first sit-ins in the late 1940s to Selma, Alabama.
“He was one of the tallest trees in the civil rights forest,” Rev. Jesse Jackson tweeted following his death, calling Vivian a mentor. “He never stopped dreaming. He never stopped fighting. We are better because he came this way.”
“Beginning in 1963, he served as the national director of affiliates for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In that role, he became a key ally of Martin Luther King Jr. and a major organizer of civil rights actions across the South.”
As director of affiliates for SCLC, Vivian faced great opposition in segregationist Sheriff Jim Clark, who blocked his path to the Dallas County courthouse in February 1965, having traveled to Selma to press for voting rights.
“You can turn your back on me, but you cannot turn your back upon the idea of justice. You can turn your back now and you can keep the club in your hand, but you cannot beat down justice,” he told Clark, as the media recorded the encounter and several dozen protesters looked on behind him. “And we will register to vote, because as citizens of these United States we have the right to do it.”
“Clark responded to Vivian with a punch in the mouth, knocking him to the ground. Vivian did not retaliate physically, but pulled himself to his feet and kept speaking as police shoved aside and ultimately arrested him. “
Weeks after the incident aired on national television, “thousands of people gathered for the famous march from Selma to Montgomery. And before the year was out, Congress had passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.”
Vivian received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his work in 2013. He founded the C. T. Vivian Leadership Institute.