Remembering Rev. C.T. Vivian (1924-2020)
Rev. C.T. Vivian and Rep. John Lewis, two icons of the civil rights movement, passed away within hours of one another on July 17, 2020. This is the second of our Mission Moment columns dedicated to remembering their lives and impact on our community.
By 1965, voter registration among Black citizens had become the focal point and rallying cry for the civil rights movement. Led by activists, organizers, and preachers such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it had become clear that if change were to come it would not just be through legal action and legislation but at the ballot box. Registering voters became paramount.
And that is why on February 5, 1965, Rev. C.T. Vivian had come to the courthouse in Selma, Alabama. Dispatched to Selma by Dr. King, Jr. as his “field general,” Rev. Vivian came to the courthouse with close to 100 people who wished to register to vote. He was confronted by Sheriff Jim Clark, who stopped them at the door.
What happened next was a galvanizing moment for the non-violent civil rights movement. As the news cameras rolled and Rev. Vivian verbally confronted Sheriff Clark, the sheriff turned away, refusing to listen. And then Rev. Vivian was recorded saying, “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.”
Clark responded by striking Rev. Vivian in the mouth so hard that he broke his own hand. Bleeding but unbowed, Vivian continued his insistence that voter registration be allowed to continue as he was arrested and taken to jail.
The confrontation on the courthouse steps in February led to the Selma to Montgomery march for voter registration in March. John Lewis and Hosea Williams led the marchers out of Selma and across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Once again, the cameras were rolling as they were attacked by Alabama troopers, led by Sheriff Jim Clark. That day became known as Bloody Sunday; it was a turning point in the civil rights movement. In August 1965—just a few months later—President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, a cornerstone in the fight for civil rights.
Rev. C.T. Vivian never retreated from that fight. Martin Luther King, Jr. is quoted as saying that Vivian was “the best preacher that ever lived.” After the assassination of Dr. King, Jr. Vivian continued the work with greater fervor, completely dedicated to change through non-violence.
After one confrontation with authorities, the Atlanta Constitution quoted him as saying, “I got down on my knees and said, ‘Thank you, Lord’—not because I was alive, but because I had done what I should do, and I’d done it well. Even when I got knocked down, I stood back up. I’d stood up to the powers that be, and I did it nonviolently.”
Reverend C.T. Vivian preached and prayed, confronted and argued, organized and marched, lectured and trained—and just kept going, year after year, with courage and determination.
In 2013, President Barack Obama honored Rev. C.T. Vivian with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, honoring a life’s work of nearly seven decades in the struggle for civil rights.
After suffering a stroke earlier this year, Rev. Vivian passed away on the morning of July 17, 2020. America is blessed by his life and legacy—and he continues to challenge each of us to “do what we should do, and do it well.”