The honorable C.T. Vivian is a minister, author, civil rights activist and leader, but he is known best for being a close friend to Martin Luther King, Jr. during the civil rights movement. In 2013, President Barack Obama awarded Vivian with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“When I was given the freedom medal, I didn’t know one existed,” Vivian said, “because it was the people I was willing to die for, not the medal.”
He was asked by King in 1963 to join the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), where he would oversee various local civil rights groups across the United States. It would soon be known how pivotal his work would become to the SCLC, with regards to the Voters Rights Act of 1965, the Selma to Montgomery Marches and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“I knew we won [the movement] when New Yorkers laid down in the middle of the street for the cause,” Vivian said. “The [Civil Rights] movement was always about the right to vote and was the last great action of [the] movement.”
When asked, “why the march was the last but greatest action on the movement?” Vivian responded, “that’s what we wanted to happen and that’s what happened, but it wouldn’t have happened if it was not for non-violent direct action.”
During our time with the legendary activist, he shared one of his favorite stories about an experience he had with King: “Martin would often tell someone in the executive staff to run the meeting, and he would just sit back and every now and then ask a question, always, when we would get to that point where we thought we were ready to go out and get the work done. Martin would ask a question that we hadn’t ask or thought of. We settle down and it was one [of] those ‘oh no’ moments, and we would all come back together and answer the question. Then, we would look at Martin to see if it was a good enough answer. When Martin didn’t have any other questions and we had ask all the question we were going to ask, we would be ready to go. Then, we could go out and get the work done.”
In 2008, Vivian established an organization, named the C.T. Vivian Leadership Institute, to train and educate a new generation of grass-roots leaders.
“One of Martin’s greatest lines: ‘Violence creates more problems than it solves,’” Vivian said.
During his talk at the Martin Luther King Convocation, he continued to convey his love and compassion for his friend by saying, “he was a man of action and didn’t just want to end something, but also he wanted to start something.”
Though Vivian said “Martin was great to work with and the right person to lead the movement,” he also shared that King was “not hard to please” and he “asked a lot of questions.”