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Civil rights pioneer C.T. Vivian dies at the age of 95

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Distinguished minister, author and civil rights leader Reverend Dr. C.T. Vivian passed away early on the morning of July 17, just weeks shy of his 96th birthday. Dr. Vivian was highly respected across the racial spectrum and a recipient of the nation’s highest civilian honor – the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He was best known for his work with Dr. Martin Luther King.

Vivian was born Cordy Tindell Vivian on July 30, 1924 in Booneville, Missouri. When he was a child, he moved to Macomb, Illinois. There, he attended Lincoln Grade Middle School and Edison Junior High School. He graduated from Macomb High School in 1942 and attended Western Illinois University. He also studied ministry at American Baptist College in Nashville, Tenn.

Vivian is said to have helped change the nation through his relentless work fighting for justice and equality during the Civil Rights Movement and throughout his life. He served as National Director of Affiliates, and strategist for every Southern Christian Leadership Conference (S.C.L.C.) organization. In Birmingham, his work helped to enact the Civil Rights Bill and in Selma, the Voting Rights Bill.

Vivian won his first non-violent direct-action movement in 1947 by integrating restaurants in Peoria, Ill. The summer following the Selma Movement, Vivian developed, organized and launched Vision, an educational program that assisted over 700 Alabama students to attend college on scholarship. Vision would later be known as Upward Bound.

In 1961, he participated in Freedom Rides and working alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., helped organize the first sit-ins in Nashville and the first civil rights march. In 1970, Vivian authored the first book written by a member of King’s staff entitled Black Power and the American Myth.

After leaving King’s Executive Staff, Vivian trained ministers and developed the urban curriculum for seminaries throughout the nation at the Urban Training Center in Chicago. He returned to the realm of seminary education as the Dean of Divinity at Shaw University Seminary. There, he originated and acquired funding for an unprecedented national level program, the basis of his doctoral work, Seminary Without Walls.

In 2008, Vivian founded the Atlanta-based C.T. Vivian Leadership Institute, Inc. to create a model leadership culture for the purpose of training and educating the new generation of grass-roots leaders inspired to mobilize a constituency. He was the recipient of many honorary degrees, including an honorary Doctorate in 2010 from Morehouse College. He served as National President of S.C.L.C. in 2012.

In November 2013, Vivian was honored for his vision and leadership in the fight for justice when he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Among his many leadership roles, he served on the board of the Center for Democratic Renewal and the National Voting Rights Museum. He was Board Chair of BASIC Diversity, Inc., the nation’s oldest diversity consulting firm. He also provided civil rights counsel to Presidents Johnson, Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and Obama, and lectured on racial justice and democracy throughout the world.

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