For the Rev. C.T. Vivian, a jail cell was about as familiar as a police officer’s fist. For his work during the height of the civil rights movement, the minister and activist was arrested more times than he cared to count and suffered several brutal beatings at the hands of officers throughout the South.
All the while, he held fast to one principle: “In no way would we allow nonviolence to be destroyed by violence,” he recalled in an oral history recorded in 2011.
Vivian, who died Friday in Atlanta at the age of 95, was a proselytizer of nonviolent resistance. From Peoria, Ill., where he organized some of the civil rights movement’s first sit-ins in the late 1940s, to Selma, Ala., where a sheriff sucker-punched him on camera in 1965, Vivian bore the same message: Change must come, and nonviolent direct action is necessary to bring it about.
“He was one of the tallest trees in the civil rights forest,” Rev. Jesse Jackson tweeted Friday, calling Vivian a mentor. “He never stopped dreaming. He never stopped fighting. We are better because he came this way.”
Born Cordy Tindell Vivian, he cut his teeth as a young man organizing direct actions in Illinois before heading to Nashville. It was while he was there, in the mid- to late 1950s, that Vivian first worked with Martin Luther King Jr. and led a series of campaigns against segregation in the Tennessee capital.
Over the following decade, his efforts took him to Chattanooga, Tenn., Jackson, Miss., and Birmingham, Ala., among other cities throughout the South.
He was a leading member of the Freedom Riders, a loose collection of activists who took rode interstate buses to protest segregated bus terminals — and often suffered beatings and arrests as a result.
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.
“If it had Martin’s name on it or if it was SCLC-affiliated, I was over that and having to take care of it and deal with it,” he explained in 2011.
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SOURCE: NPR, Colin Dwyer