Skip to content Skip to navigation

Cordy Tindell Vivian, aide to Martin Luther King, Jr., and longtime community organizer, dies at 95

Jul 17 2020

The Reverend Cordy Tindell Vivian, aide to Martin Luther King, Jr., and longtime community organizer, passed away this morning at his Atlanta home at the age of 95.

Born on 30 July 1924 in Boonville, Missouri, C. T. Vivian grew up in Macomb, Illinois, after his family relocated there when he was six years old. After graduating from Macomb High School in 1942, Vivian briefly attended Western Illinois University before moving to Peoria, Illinois, where he participated in lunch counter sit-ins in 1947 and 1948 and met his wife, Octavia Geans, while they were both working at the Carver Community Center. Shortly after the couple married, Vivian moved to Nashville to study at the American Baptist Theological Seminary. In Nashville, he also took part in the successful sit-in campaign at local lunch counters in 1960 alongside other activists including James Lawson, Diane Nash, and John Lewis. The following year, Vivian was jailed and beaten after taking part in a Freedom Ride to Jackson, Mississippi.

King then asked Vivian to become the director of affiliates for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1963. In this capacity, Vivian helped to organize demonstrations and advise King in SCLC's campaigns in Birmingham, Alabama; St. Augustine, Florida; and Selma, Alabama. Vivian's widely publicized confrontation with Selma's Sheriff Jim Clark on the Dallas Country Courthouse steps on 16 February 1965 tested his commitment to nonviolence; however, when Clark knocked him to the ground with a blow to his face, the Baptist minister returned to his feet without retaliating and continued to advocate for the African-American residents attempting to register to vote. Reflecting on the incident several years ago, Vivian quipped, "He thought he could outtalk me, and he just wasn't up to it." He continued, "I had to get upnot for me. I had to get up for all those people that had come."

After leaving SCLC in 1966, Vivian worked in Chicago as director of the Urban Training Center for Christian Mission and also founded the Coalition for United Community Action, which aimed to end racism in trade unions. He went on to establish a number of organizations focused on racial and economic justice and the empowerment of underserved communities, including the Black Action Strategies and Information Center (BASIC) and the C. T. Vivian Leadership Institute. When President Barack Obama awarded Vivian with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in November 2013, he stated, "Reverend Vivian is still out there, still in the action, pushing us closer to our founding ideals."

Photograph by Jaquelyn Martin.

Posted in: 
King Institute