The Reverend C.T. Vivian, a key civil rights icon and one of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s most influential lieutenants, passed away in the early morning hours of July 17, 2020, at the age of 95. He died of natural causes.
A Baptist minister, Vivian was known for his staunch belief in nonviolence, despite the violence he experienced firsthand while leading peaceful protesters through brutal White mobs.
It was during one of those confrontations, on February 16, 1965, that Vivian made his mark on the civil rights movement, as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports.
As Vivian and other activists were outside the Dallas County courthouse in Selma, Alabama, trying to assist Black voters in registering, he encountered the wrath of known segregationist Sheriff Jim Clark.
Clark punched Vivian, who was insisting on the importance of everyone having the right to vote, and knocked him to the ground.
In the face of that violence, which led to Vivian needing 11 stitches in his mouth (before he was carried to jail), Vivian merely picked himself off the ground and continued to protest for the right to vote.
“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,” he told the Journal-Constitution in an interview in 2013, recalling the incident. “Even when I got knocked down, I stood back up. I’d stood up to the powers that be, and I did it nonviolently.”
In 2013 Vivian would also be honored at the White House, receiving the highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, from then President Barack Obama.
Born on July 30, 1924, in Boonville, Missouri, Vivian was the only child of Robert and Euzetta Tindell Vivian, The New York Times notes. When he was 6, his family moved to Macomb, Illinois, where Vivian ended up studying history at West Illinois University before he ultimately dropped out and became a recreation worker in Peoria. It was in Peoria that the minister joined his first protest in 1947, the Times notes.
In 1952, he would marry Octavia Geans, who authored Coretta, the first biography of Coretta Scott King. Octavia Geans Vivian died in 2011. The couple had six children, one of whom, Cordy, Jr., died in 2010.