Civil Rights Leader Rev. C.T. Vivian Dies at 95: 'We've Lost a Founder of Modern America'

C.T. Vivian died on Friday, the same day as fellow civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis

CT Vivian
Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Rev. C.T. Vivian, a civil rights leader and field general for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., died on Friday at the age of 95.

Two of Vivian’s daughters, Kira Vivian and Denise Morse, confirmed their father's death to The New York Times, sharing that he had been in hospice care.

Born in Missouri and raised in Illinois, Vivian took part in his first civil rights protest in 1947 — a lunch counter sit-in in Peoria, Illinois. After that, he led sit-ins, boycotts and marches in segregated cities across the country, including Selma and Birmingham, Alabama, St. Augustine, Florida, and Jackson, Mississippi.

In one famous instance of activism in 1965, Vivian led a group of about 100 people to vote in Selma to find a local sheriff blocking the group.

“What you’re really trying to do is intimidate these people and by making them stand in the rain keep them from registering to vote,” he told the sheriff, according to footage of the incident. “And this, this is a kind of violation of the Constitution, a violation of a court order, a violation of decent citizenship.”

“You can turn your back on me,” Vivian continued, “but you cannot turn your back upon the idea of justice. You can turn your back now and you can keep your club in your hand, but you cannot beat down justice. And we will register to vote because as citizens of these United States we have the right to do it.”

The sheriff, James G. Clark, responded by beating Vivian and arresting him for criminal provocation. Images of the encounter, which left Vivian bloodied, helped spread awareness for the civil rights movement.

From 1963 through 1966, Vivian served as the national director of 85 local chapters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a civil rights organization first led by Dr. King.

Vivian was also a member of the Freedom Riders, a collection of civil rights activists who rode through southern states to fight segregation at bus terminals and other public facilities.

News of Vivian’s death came just hours before it was reported that Georgia Rep. John Lewis — a fellow Freedom Rider and longtime civil rights activist — had died at the age of 80. Director Ava DuVernay honored both Vivian and Lewis in a social media post on Saturday, noting the pair are “together again now.”

“For those of us who mourn John Lewis today, he would also want you to remember his friend Reverend C.T. Vivian,” she wrote. “A fellow lion for justice who journeyed home to glory just hours before the Congressman. Together again now.”

Former President Barack Obama shared a touching tribute to Vivian on Friday, posting a photo of Vivian receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.

“Today, we’ve lost a founder of modern America, a pioneer who shrunk the gap between reality and our constitutional ideals of equality and freedom,” Obama wrote.

“I admired him from before I became a senator and got to know him as a source of wisdom, advice, and strength on my first presidential campaign,” he added. “His friendship, encouraging words, and ever-present smile were a great source of inspiration and comfort, and personally, I will miss him greatly. I’m only here thanks to C.T. Vivian and all the heroes in that Civil Rights Generation. Because of them, the idea of a just, fair, inclusive, and generous America came closer into focus. The trail they blazed gave today’s generation of activists and marchers a roadmap to tag in and finish the journey. And I have to imagine that seeing the largest protest movement in history unfold over his final months gave the Reverend a final dose of hope before his long and well-deserved rest.”

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