Vivian, C. T.

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C. T. Vivian

Minister, civil rights activist

The Reverend Cordy Tindell Vivian, better known as the Reverend C. T. Vivian, was not a product of the South, but nevertheless had those normative experiences that made him realize that civil wrongs must become civil rights. Reared in a devout Christian home environment, he found racism intellectually and spiritually indefensible. Dedicated to the eradication of America's system of racial apartheid, he used direct nonviolent techniques to confront U.S. racial segregation policies.

Cordy Tindell Vivian, the only child of Robert and Euzetta Tindell Vivian, was born on July 28, 1924 in Boonville, Illinois. His mother and maternal grandmother, Annie Woods Tindell, reared him in McComb, Illinois, where they moved six years after his birth. At the apex of the Great Depression, his mother and grandmother lost everything, including their marriages, their agricultural holdings, and their house in the city. Because they wanted Vivian, nicknamed C. T, to have access to the best education possible, they moved to McComb because of its desegregated educational system and because it was the home of Western Illinois University. Consequently, Vivian grew up with the idea that college was in his future. Attending the public schools of McComb, he received his primary education at Lincoln Grade School. He refused to let the school's bullies beat up the weaker students. Said Vivian in an article in the Peoria Journal Star, "Those incidents meant nobody was going to mess with me and I could be free, in fact, [I] … could use [my] … position to free other people." Here he experienced for the first time the power of nonviolence. Upon completing his primary education, Vivian attended Edison Junior High School and McComb High School. He was an active youth member of the Allen Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where he taught in the Sunday school and served as president of the youth group. He graduated from McComb High School in 1942. Upon graduating from high school, Vivian entered Western Illinois University in McComb.

During his tenure at Western Illinois University, Vivian was disturbed by a number of issues, including racism. Beginning at Western Illinois as a social science major, Vivian experienced intellectual clashes with the head of the department. Additionally, with the country in the midst of World War II, there were very few white men attending the university, as most entered the war. White male students tried to protect white females from black men on campus. These covert racial issues proved difficult for Vivian. Thinking that the behavior of the social science department's head was the exception rather than the rule, Vivian changed his major to English, only to find the department's chair was no better. He refused to let Vivian join the English Club and threatened those students who were his friends. These experiences demonstrated to Vivian how racism permeated the culture. Just as he had become aware of the power of nonviolence earlier, now he began to recognize that the beliefs entrenched at the upper echelons of a social order were not the same as those held by the people at the opposite end of the social strata. Notwithstanding the difficulties he experienced with faculty, Vivian worked for the university's school newspaper as its sports editor. In the mid-1940s, he left Western Illinois University and moved to Peoria, Illinois, where he worked for the Carver Community Center as assistant boys' director.

Becomes an Active Participant for Equality and Justice

Two years after arriving in Peoria, Vivian participated in his first sit-in demonstrations. Unlike the South, the country's northern region practiced de facto segregation, as opposed to the South's de jurie segregation. To Vivian, the morés of the North were only a little better than those in the South. Although the region's businesses posted no racially-specific signs, its customs and traditions were well known by its residents. In an attempt to alter the customs and traditions of Peoria, Vivian became an active participant in an integrated group to open restaurants and lunch counters to all people, regardless of race.

Vivian, along with the Reverend Barton Hunter, a minister at West Bluff Christian Church, and Ben Alexander, a chemist, began efforts to desegregate the area's restaurants. Employing the methods used by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), they demanded service, not by the spoken word, but by non-threatening action. They simply stood in line and raised the issue in the consciences of those involved.

The integrated group employed other tactics by sending in a group of whites, whom the eating establishments seated. Then blacks entered, and the whites—in voices loud enough for everyone to hear—questioned why the blacks were not being served. Because of the efforts of Vivian and others, Barton's Cafeteria was desegregated in 1947. Between 1947 and 1948, he and the small group of protesters worked to desegregate other eateries in Peoria.

While working in Peoria, Vivian met and later married Octavia Geans, a native of Pontiac, Michigan, on February 23, 1953. The couple was married fifty-three years. They became the parents of six children:Denise, Cordy Jr., Kira, Mark, Charissa, and Albert. The same year that he married, the Peoria National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter elected Vivian as vice president. A year later, while working at Foster and Gallagher Mail Order Company, he accepted his call to the ministry. Later that year, he gave his first sermon at Mount Zion Baptist Church. With financial assistance from his church and Helen Gallagher, he made plans to attend the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee. Unknown to him, Vivian was about to embark upon one of the most important social movements of the twentieth century.

Becomes Part of America's Second Reconstruction

Arriving in Nashville the same year that the actions of Rosa Parks sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which catapulted a young minister named Martin Luther King Jr. into the national spotlight, Vivian entered the American Theological Seminary in 1955. In addition to attending the seminary, he pastored the congregants of the First Community Church and worked as an editor at the National Baptist Sunday School Publishing Board of the National Baptist Convention. When the civil rights movement's line of demarcation was drawn between the litigious efforts of the NAACP and those of the grassroots, which ushered in direct nonviolent protest, Vivian found himself in a constant struggle with the more conservative editors of the publishing board. The other editors wanted limited coverage on the new racial protest and the rise of King. When the editors rejected a twenty-four-page article that Vivian wrote after an interview with King, Vivian left the employment of the Sunday School Publishing Board and with his own money privately published and sold the booklet.

In the late fall 1956, Vivian boarded a Nashville Transit Authority bus and seated himself near the front of the half-filled vehicle. The driver of the bus, adhering to the city's customs, ordered him to the rear. A heated debate ensued and Vivian refused to acquiesce to the driver's orders. Subsequently, the driver ordered other passengers to vacate the bus and drove Vivian downtown to police headquarters. Earlier the United States Supreme Court's decision in the Browder v. Gayle case had ruled in favor of the Montgomery plaintiffs with regard to the desegregation of intrastate transportation. Nashville's law enforcement officials did not know the city's position or policy. After making phone calls to city hall, they learned that the city was in the process of ending segregated seating on public conveyances.


Born in Boonville, Missouri on July 28
Attends Western Illinois University
Participates in his first sit-ins, which leads to the racial integration of Barton's Cafeteria in Peoria, Illinois, among other restaurants and hotels
Marries Octavia Geans of Pontiac, Michigan; elected vice president of Peoria's NAACP Chapter
Receives his call to the ministry; preaches first sermon at Mount Zion Baptist Church in Peoria
Moves to Nashville, Tennessee to attend American Baptist Theological Seminary
Appointed by Dr. King to the executive staff of SCLC as National Director of Affiliates
Publishes Black Power and the American Myth
Becomes dean, alternative education and director of Seminary Without Walls, Shaw University Divinity School, Raleigh, North Carolina
Establishes Black Action Strategies and Information Center
Assists in organizing and serves as board chairman for National Anti-Klan Network, now known as Center for Democratic Renewal
Serves as the national deputy director for clergy, during Rev. Jesse Jackson's presidential campaign
Receives honorary doctorate from the New School for Social Research for his work in the civil rights movement
Becomes founder and board member of the Capital City Bank and Trust Company, a black-owned bank in Atlanta
Receives the Trumpet Award for civil rights work

Joins Nashville's Civil Rights Movement

Four years after arriving in Nashville, Vivian joined with other ministers under the leadership of Kelly Miller Smith Sr. and established the Nashville Christian Leadership Conference (NCLC), a local affiliate of King's SCLC. During NCLC's organizational meeting, Vivian was elected vice president. At this time he met the Reverend James Lawson and others, who ultimately brought about the end of Nashville's racial segregation. In addition to other ministers and in his capacity as an NCLC official, Vivian affiliated himself with students such as Diane Nash, John Lewis, Bernard Lafayette, Marion Berry, and James Bevel, who became the student marshals of the Nashville movement.

As vice president, Vivian was in charge of the organization's direct action component. Lawson became a member of and served as chair of NCLC's Action Committee. After formulating a plan to conduct workshops on Gandhi's method of protest, NCLC leaders and students tested Nashville's racially exclusive policy of segregation in November and December of 1959. Because of the lack of media coverage, Nashville's sit-in movement of 1959 was eclipsed by the four Greensboro, North Carolina male students who held a sit-in on February 1, 1960. Within twelve days of the Greensboro sit-in, Nashville students moved into full action. Two months later, NCLC and the Student Committee, with the assistance of Fisk University's economic professor, Vivian Henderson, launched an economic boycott of Nashville's retail district.

With the economic boycott in full swing, on April 19, a would-be assassin hurled sticks of dynamite into the home of known civil rights attorney Z. Alexander Looby. Although the Loobys escaped, leaders in Nashville's black community called for a mass protest march to the office of mayor Ben West. Familiar with New York's silent march against lynching in the early 1900s, Vivian insisted that the silent strategy be the march's protocol. At the head of some 4,000 persons, once they started and until they reached the courthouse square, bystanders only heard the thump of walking feet. When West came out to meet with them, Vivian read a prepared speech denouncing the mayor's leadership. His defensive response angered West, and the two men, in caustic fashion, verbally retaliated against each other. According to the Tennessee Historical Quarterly, when Vivian asked West "if he thought segregation was moral," the mayor answered, "No." At that point, Nash picked up the questioning and asked the mayor to use the standing of his office to stop racial segregation. Immediately, he appealed to all citizens to end discrimination, to have no bigotry, no bias, and no hatred. Taking his answer the next level, Nash asked the question of the day, "Mayor, do you recommend that lunch counters be desegregated?" The mayor answered in the affirmative. Because Vivian's razor sharp questioning paved the way for Nash's questions, Nashville lunch counters began the desegregation process on May 10, 1960, two months before Greensboro, North Carolina, which captured national attention.

Leaves Nashville; Joins King's SCLC Staff

After the first wave of the Nashville sit-ins, Vivian and his family moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he served as pastor of the Cosmopolitan Community Church. While there, his wife gave birth to their youngest son in a segregated hospital. Vivian used this occasion to end segregation in that city's healthcare facilities. In 1961, he participated in the Freedom Rides and became involved in several major campaigns, including Albany, Georgia (1961); Birmingham, Alabama (1962); St. Augustine, Florida (1964); and Selma, Alabama (1965).

In 1963, King appointed Vivian to SCLC's executive staff and named him national director of affiliates. In this position, he became the consultant to all SCLC organizations on voter registration, consumer actions, nonviolent training, direct action, human relations, and community development projects. Two years later, in Selma, Alabama, on the courthouse steps he challenged Sheriff Jim Clark during a voter registration drive. Because of Clark's reaction to Vivian's passionate discourse, Clark smacked the impassioned orator and thereby exposed himself to the world as a racist. After the Selma movement, he directed Vision (later known as Upward Bound), an educational program that put more than seven hundred Alabama students in college with scholarships.

Leaves SCLC

Three years after joining the staff of SCLC, Vivian left the organization to direct the Urban Training Center for Christian Mission in Chicago. There he trained clergy, community leaders, and others in ways to organize. In 1968, while residing in Chicago, Vivian served as the coordinator for the Coalition for United Community Action. The group of sixty-one became Chicago's Black Front. Leading a direct-action campaign against racism in building trades unions, Vivian and the community action group mediated a truce among Chicago gangs. Gaining 20,000 openings for both African American and Latino youth in the sixteen building trade unions, the Chicago Plan became the model for other cities.

The following year, Vivian published Black Power and the American Myth, the first book on the modern civil rights movement. Later, it became an Ebony Book Club selection. Three years after writing his book, Vivian became dean of Chapel at Shaw University. While at Shaw, he established and found funding for a national program, Seminary Without Walls. Between 1977 and 1979, Vivian established the Black Action Strategies and Information Center (BASIC), of which he served as chair of the board. The primary focus of BASIC was to teach the principle of managing a multiethnic force. He also established the Anti-Klan Network that later became known as the Center for Democratic Renewal. During Jesse Jackson's 1984 presidential campaign, Vivian worked earnestly as the National Director for Clergy. A year later, the New School for Social Research conferred upon him an honorary doctorate of humane letters. Vivian was among those who, in 1992, organized the National Voting Rights Museum in Selma, Alabama, of which he was a board member. Two years later, he served as a board member of the Capitol City Bank & Trust Company, a black-owned bank in Atlanta, Georgia.

In 1999, Vivian turned day-to-day operations of BASIC over to his son. Although he retired, he continued to lecture and be involved in numerous national and international boards and groups that promoted nonviolent tactics for social change. A year later, Vivian was the inaugural speaker in Stetson University's Howard Thurman Lecture Series. In 2001, he served as speaker for the United Nations International Conference Against Racism, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerances held in South Africa; speaker for the Fourth World Conference on Nonviolence at the University of Rhode Island; consultant to the United Nations World Conference of Religious and Spiritual Leaders in New York; and was the speaker for Jamaican Independence Day.

Because of his spirited commitment to the civil rights movement, Vivian has been placed in the Civil Rights Institute (Birmingham, Alabama); the National Civil Rights Museum (Memphis, Tennessee); the National Voting Rights Museum (Selma, Alabama); and the Portrait Hall of Fame, M. L. King Chapel, Morehouse College (Atlanta, Georgia.) Several television documentaries highlighting the civil rights era spotlighted Vivian as activist, analyst, and strategist. They include Eyes on the Prize and The Healing Ministry of Dr. C. T. Vivian, both of which aired on the Public Broadcast System (PBS).

The 2006 recipient of the Trumpet Award, Vivian lived in Atlanta, Georgia with his wife. There he continued to serve as a spiritual leader in the Providence Missionary Baptist Church and remained an active member of numerous civic groups and organizations. The ever-vigilante righter of wrongs, Vivian was a steadfast supporter of human causes that brought his dream of an equitable and just world closer to fruition.



Arsenault, Raymond. Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Conkin, Paul K. Gone with the Ivy: A Biography of Vanderbilt University. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1985.

Halberstam, David. The Children. New York: Random House, 1998.

Walker, Lydia. Challenge and Change: The Story of C. T Vivian. Alpharetta, Ga.: W. H. Wolfe Associates, 1993.


Adams, Pam. "Changing the Nation: C. T. Vivian Reflects on the Days in Central Illinois that Forged His Soul." Peoria Journal Star, 24 October 1999.

Wynn, Linda T. "The Dawning of a New Day: The Nashville Sit-Ins, February 13, 1960–May 10, 1960." Tennessee Historical Quarterly L (Spring 1991): 42-54.


Bennett, Kathy. Interviewer. "The Reverend C. T. and Octavia Vivian," Nashville Room, Nashville Public Library, Recorded 12 May 2003. Transcribed by Carolyn James, 28-31 July 2003.

Interview with author, 18 January 2006.

                                      Linda T. Wynn