“It was the Freedom Riders in Parchman [the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman], where we created new songs as well as sang freedom songs. The joy of the place was there as we sang. Guards and so forth did not understand it. I remember making up songs one Sunday morning as we created our own Sunday service in jail…. ‘Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on’ was a song…we brought to the prison.” —C.T. Vivian, from his interview for the civil rights documentary television series Eyes on the Prize
Civil rights leader Cordy Tindell “C.T.” Vivian died on July 17, 2020, of natural causes at the age of 95. Vivian was a Baptist minister, writer, and activist who led sit-ins and marches throughout the South in the fight for racial justice. He served in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and was an advisor to Martin Luther King Jr.
Vivian was interviewed about his experiences in 1986 for Eyes on the Prize, the acclaimed documentary series on the civil right movement, which is part of Washington University Libraries’ Henry Hampton Collection.
A native of Booneville, Missouri, Vivian studied history at Western Illinois University for a time before dropping out and finding employment as a recreation director in Peoria, Illinois. In Peoria, in 1947, he participated in his first protest—helping with the desegregation of a cafeteria. Vivian went on to study at American Baptist College in Nashville, Tennessee. He heard Martin Luther King Jr. speak about nonviolence at a Nashville church in 1957.
Vivian was instrumental in staging sit-ins in Nashville to desegregate lunch counters. An advocate for nonviolence, he was frequently jailed and beaten.
“We came back day after day,” he said of the sit-ins during his Eyes on the Prize interview, “but then the opposition began to get ready for us, too. The young thug types in town, the Klan types in the city, all right, began to also come into the lunch counters where we would be, and then that’s when our training proved to be most helpful, because they began to attack, put out cigarettes on people, jerk people off of their stools and beat them and etc., pour things on people, right? Our students were ready, and they sat there and they were prepared for it.”
In 1961, Vivian took part in the Freedom Rides. His civil rights work spanned five decades. In 1966, he was made director of Chicago’s Urban Training Center for Christian Mission. In 1972, he became dean of the Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, North Carolina. He wrote Black Power and the American Myth (1970), the first book covering the civil rights movement written by a member of Martin Luther King Jr.’s staff.
Vivian established Atlanta’s Black Action Strategies and Information Center and helped found the National Anti-Klan Network (now the Center for Democratic Renewal).
In 2013, President Barack Obama presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.