Rev. C.T. Vivian, civil rights veteran who worked alongside MLK, dies at 95

“He has always been one of the people who had the most insight, wisdom, integrity and dedication,” Andrew Young, who also worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr., said of Vivian.
Image: C.T. Vivian speaks at the Langham Hotel in Pasadena, California.
C.T. Vivian, in 2011. He consulted with five presidents — Johnson, Carter, Reagan, Clinton and Obama — on civil rights matters.Frederick M. Brown / Getty Images file

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By David K. Li and Tatum Rezvani

The Rev. C.T. Vivian, a beloved civil rights veteran who marched alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., died at his home in Atlanta, his loved ones said Friday. He was 95.

Vivian's daughter, Denise Morse, confirmed her father's death and told Atlanta's NBC affiliate WXIA that he was "one of the most wonderful men who ever walked the earth."

The civil rights titan suffered a stroke about two months ago but seemed to be on the mend before “he just stopped eating” and died of natural causes, friend and business partner Don Rivers said.

President Barack Obama in 2013 honored Vivian with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

The nation's first Black chief executive on Friday posted a touching picture of himself and the beaming Vivian at that White House ceremony.

Obama thanked Vivian for his "friendship, encouraging words, and ever-present smile" and said he would have never become president without the blood and sweat shed by the late pastor and others of that generation.

"The trail they blazed gave today’s generation of activists and marchers a roadmap to tag in and finish the journey," Obama wrote.

"And I have to imagine that seeing the largest protest movement in history unfold over his final months gave the Reverend a final dose of hope before his long and well-deserved rest."

The pastor remained an advocate for justice and equality well into his advanced years.

“He has always been one of the people who had the most insight, wisdom, integrity and dedication,” said former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, a contemporary of Vivian who also worked alongside King.

Vivan was active in sit-in protests in Peoria, Illinois, in the 1940s, and met King during the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott — a demonstration spurred by Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat to a white rider. The 13-month mass protest drew international attention.

President Barack Obama awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to C.T. Vivian in the East Room at the White House.Win McNamee / Getty Images file

Vivian went on to become an active early member of the group that eventually became the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Like King, Vivian was committed to the belief that nonviolent protests could carry the day.

“There must always be the understanding of what Martin had in mind for this organization,” Vivian said in a 2012 interview. “Nonviolent, direct action makes us successful. We learned how to solve social problems without violence. We cannot allow the nation or the world to ever forget that.”

Martin Luther King Jr.'s youngest child, Bernice Albertine King, posted a picture of Vivian with Young and two other leaders in the movement, the late Joseph Lowery and Fred Shuttlesworth, in front of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.

"Rev. C.T. Vivian. Courageous. Brilliant. Sacrificial," the King Center said in a statement on Friday. "A powerfully well-lived life that lifted humanity. We will miss you."

Cordy Tindell Vivian was born July 28, 1924, in Howard County, Missouri, about halfway between Kansas City and St. Louis. As a child, he moved to be with his mother in Macomb, Illinois, near the Iowa and Missouri borders.

He went on to study theology at American Baptist College in Nashville, Tennessee, where he organized some of that city’s first civil rights sit-ins.

Vivian later participated in the Freedom Rides in Mississippi and was a close ally of King’s, serving as the SCLC’s national director of affiliates.

Over the years, Vivian said he consulted with five presidents — Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Obama — on civil rights matters.

In 2008, Vivian founded the C.T. Vivian Leadership Institute, which the group says is dedicated to creating “a model leadership culture for the purpose of training and educating the new generation of grassroots leaders.”

"The passing of C.T. Vivian should cause us all to pause and celebrate the life and sacrifice of this giant," the Rev. Al Sharpton, an MSNBC host and founder of the National Action Network, said in a statement on Friday. "He made this nation and world a better place. RIP, my friend."

The Associated Press contributed.