As a minister, educator, and community organizer, C. T. Vivian has been a tenacious advocate for civil rights since the 1940s. After joining the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in the early 1960s, he became the Director of Affiliates and participated in numerous protests. Known for his sharp tongue and unflinching courage, Vivian recalled what movement veterans felt after serving time in jail: “They had triumphed, that they had achieved, that they were now ready, they could go back home, they could be a witness to a new understanding. Nonviolence was proven in that respect” (Hampton and Fayer, 96).
Vivian, who was born on 28 July 1924 in Boonville, Missouri, relocated with his family to Macomb, Illinois, when he was six years old. After graduating from Macomb High School in 1942, he enrolled at Western Illinois University. Upon moving to Peoria, Illinois, Vivian worked as assistant boys’ director at Carver Community Center and later participated in a successful lunch counter sit-in in 1947. He served as pastor of the First Community Church in Nashville from 1956 to 1961, while completing his BD at American Baptist Theological Seminary and editing the Baptist Layman, a journal of the National Baptist Convention.
While organizing in Nashville, he became acquainted with James Lawson. Together with Kelly Miller Smith, they founded the Nashville Christian Leadership Council. In early 1960 Vivian joined Diane Nash, James Bevel, John Lewis, and other students from local universities as they staged sit-ins and other nonviolent protests throughout the city. Nash recalled Vivian’s presence: “He was an eloquent spokesperson. His fire was very much in evidence. He has a certain commitment in his personality that really pervades the things he does and says” (Hampton and Fayer, 66). In 1961 Vivian was among the Nashville activists who replaced injured freedom riders in Montgomery, Alabama. At the conclusion of the Freedom Rides in Jackson, Mississippi, police arrested Vivian and sent him to Parchman Prison, where he was brutally beaten by guards.
In 1963 King invited Vivian to join the executive staff of SCLC as the Director of Affiliates. In this capacity Vivian coordinated the activities of local civil rights groups nationwide. He also advised King and organized demonstrations during campaigns in Birmingham and Selma, Alabama, and St. Augustine, Florida. Vivian attracted national media attention in February 1965, when he was struck by Sheriff Jim Clark while leading a group attempting to register to vote at the Selma courthouse. The event was captured by television cameras and increased support for the protest.
In 1966 Vivian left SCLC and moved to Chicago to direct the Urban Training Center for Christian Mission. Two years later he organized the Coalition for United Community Action, a group of 61 black organizations aimed at ending racism in building trade unions. He later founded the Black Action Strategies and Information Center and the Center for Democratic Renewal, formerly known as the National Anti-Klan Network. His book, Black Power and the American Myth, was published in 1970.