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C.T. Vivian, King aide bloodied on the front lines of civil rights protest, dies at 95

The Rev. C.T. Vivian prays on the courthouse steps in Selma, Ala., on Feb. 5, 1965, after Sheriff James Clark, center, stopped him at the door with a court order, frustrating an effort to register black voters. (Horace Cort/AP)

C.T. Vivian, a Baptist minister and aide to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. who was bloodied on the front lines of the civil rights movement and helped shape the protests that were a turning point in the battle against racial injustice in the Jim Crow South, died July 17 at his home in Atlanta. He was 95.

His daughter Jo Anna Walker confirmed the death, saying that he had a mild stroke last year but that she did not know the immediate cause.

Rev. Vivian participated in a 1947 lunch-counter sit-in protest in Peoria, Ill., more than a dozen years before such confrontations at segregated cafeterias became a mainstream tactic of the civil rights struggle. He also was among the Freedom Rider activists in 1961 who traveled by bus into the Deep South to test enforcement of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that had outlawed discrimination in interstate transportation facilities.

An ebullient speaker with a confrontational personality, Rev. Vivian became a stalwart of the King-led Southern Christian Leadership Conference but was not part of King’s innermost circle, which included leaders such as the Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy, Andrew Young and Dorothy Cotton.

As director of affiliates, Rev. Vivian presided over dozens of SCLC chapters and helped orchestrate protest activities and training and community development efforts. He traveled to Danville, Va.; St. Augustine, Fla.; and other cities fraught with civil rights tension, and he carried the scars to prove it.

He drew national attention in Selma, Ala., on Feb. 16, 1965, during his showdown with Dallas County Sheriff James G. Clark, whose fondness for military-style helmets and jackets and whose aggressively brutal use of a nightstick made him one of the most notorious law enforcement officials in the Deep South.

Rev. Vivian was in Selma to register African Americans to vote while the county board of registrars threw up resistance, at first declining to accept applications and then insisting on literacy tests and other hurdles to slow the process. A federal district judge demanded an end to such roadblocks.

Amid a light rain, Rev. Vivian corralled about 100 followers — in a line that snaked around the county courthouse — to take shelter on the building steps. Clark and his club-wielding deputies ordered Rev. Vivian to leave and began to shove everyone off the steps.

“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,” the minister said in an electrifying response, while jabbing his finger at Clark. “And this, this is a kind of violation of the Constitution, a violation of a court order, a violation of decent citizenship.”

Clark turned his back, and Rev. Vivian continued: “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 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 minister held his ground and called the sheriff a “brute” and “Hitler,” according to news accounts. Clark — a stocky 220 pounds — aimed a fist at Rev. Vivian’s mouth, sending him reeling down the stairs before he was taken to jail on a charge of criminal provocation.

Clark later said he did not recall injuring Rev. Vivian until an X-ray exam showed the sheriff had a linear fracture in a finger on his left hand. “Every time it appears the movement is dying out, Sheriff Clark comes to our rescue,” an SCLC staffer told the New York Times, noting continuing barbaric attacks on protesters in the days that followed.

David J. Garrow, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of King, said that Rev. Vivian’s actions provoked a “memorable photo from the Selma campaign, and it personifies the movement’s ability to get segregationist officials to reveal who they really were.”

The skirmishes in Selma culminated in the March 1965 “Bloody Sunday” clash at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Captured on national television, the incident galvanized congressional support for the Voting Rights Act to prohibit racial discrimination in balloting.

Rev. Vivian left the SCLC soon after Selma. He spent many years in Chicago, where he worked for a group that tried to make higher-paying union jobs accessible to African Americans. He also wrote an early book about the civil rights movement, “Black Power and the American Myth” (1970), and led educational and civil rights groups in Illinois and Georgia.

Over the years, he became a keeper of the flame of the civil rights protest era. In 2013, President Barack Obama bestowed on Rev. Vivian the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor.

In a statement Friday, the former president wrote that Rev. Vivian “was always one of the first in the action — a Freedom Rider, a marcher in Selma, beaten, jailed, almost killed, absorbing blows in hopes that fewer of us would have to. He waged nonviolent campaigns for integration across the south, and campaigns for economic justice throughout the north, knowing that even after the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act that he helped win, our long journey to equality was nowhere near finished.”

Cordy Tindell Vivian was born in Boonville, Mo., on July 30, 1924, and grew up in Macomb, Ill., with a mother and maternal grandmother who encouraged his pursuit of higher education.

He attended Western Illinois State Teachers College (now Western Illinois University), where he planned to major in English literature. But his prohibition from joining a club for English majors led him to drop out of school in protest.

He moved to Peoria, found stockyard work and eventually became recreation director at a community center. He felt a calling to the ministry, and a local church raised the funds for him to enroll at American Baptist Theological Seminary (now American Baptist College) in Nashville.

He supported himself working as a pastor and for a religious publishing house affiliated with a black Baptist church organization. In college, Rev. Vivian was mentored by the Rev. James Lawson, whom Garrow called a “pied piper” of nonviolent civil rights activism. Rev. Vivian and other Lawson disciples such as Diane Nash, the Rev. James L. Bevel and future congressman John Lewis helped lead a months-long protest of segregation at public facilities that forced the city to change its policy.

Rev. Vivian’s first marriage, to Jane Teague, ended in divorce. His wife of 58 years, the former Octavia Geanes, the author of an early biography of Coretta Scott King, died in 2011. Their son Cordy Vivian Jr. died in 2010. In addition to Jo Anna Walker, a daughter from his first marriage, survivors include five children from his second marriage, Denise Morse, Kira Vivian, Mark Vivian, Anita Charisse Thornton and Albert Vivian; and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Through recent years, Rev. Vivian was a frequent lecturer on civil rights and activism, serving as a witness to history and an inspiration to younger generations. A half-century after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, he told an audience at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro that the greatest challenge of protest is to assert one’s voice in an effective way.

“This is what made the movement,” he said. “Our voice was really heard. But it didn’t happen by accident. We made certain it was heard.”

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