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Rev. CT Vivian, A Civil Rights Pioneer, Dies At 95


Rev. C.T. Vivian spent his life fighting for racial justice. In 1947, he held a sit-in at a lunch counter in Peoria, Ill., 13 years before the well-known sit-ins in Greensboro, N.C.


He helped organize freedom rides to integrate buses in the South.

MCCAMMON: And in 1965, he confronted Sheriff Jim Clark and other officers on the steps of an Alabama courthouse, standing up for the right to vote.


CT VIVIAN: 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. And we will register to vote because as citizens of these United States, we have the right to do it.

CHANG: Today, Vivian died at his home in Atlanta at the age of 95. And while most people know him for working alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Vivian's own work helped pave the way for civil rights protests in the years to come.

MCCAMMON: In Nashville in the late 1950s, Vivian and fellow minister James Lawson trained Black and white college students in nonviolent direct action. Civil rights historian Taylor Branch says that training was pivotal.

TAYLOR BRANCH: They became the shock troops for the sit-ins, the freedom rides and many of the demonstrations later.

CHANG: Branch knew Vivian personally, too, and he described Vivian's home as something close to a library, with thousands of volumes of racial history on the shelves. But Branch says Vivian's personality transcended that of a scholar.

BRANCH: C.T. Vivian was an intellectual whose instinct was to smile and crack a joke. And he and Dr. King had a very similar sense of humor. And I think that was part of his charm.

MCCAMMON: As Vivian led others in the fight for justice, he was arrested, thrown behind bars and beaten. Branch says the most notable confrontation, though, may have been that day at the courthouse in Selma, Ala., in 1965, just weeks before Bloody Sunday. Vivian recalled that day in an interview with Branch for the Library of Congress.


VIVIAN: I had no idea what was going to happen when I got there. I thought they would let us in, and we would have some sort of encounter or conversation or whatever with whoever was in charge of the voting.

BRANCH: The courthouse.


CHANG: The actual outcome was far worse. As Vivian made his case with a long line of Black voters standing behind him in the rain, segregationist Jim Clark, the sheriff, slugged Vivian in the face, knocking him to the ground. Vivian stood back up and continued his argument.


VIVIAN: I have the privilege to vote. You beat me in the side and hide your blows. I don't need to leave. We've come to register to vote. (Unintelligible) What kind of people are you?

MCCAMMON: Later in life, Vivian founded organizations focused on improving education and race relations in this country. And in 2013, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama. In a speech shortly after, Vivian said the real honor was being able to help those around you.


VIVIAN: If you're not changing things for the benefit of the greater society, then you're not about much anyway.

CHANG: Rev. C.T. Vivian died today at age 95. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.