The Rev. Cordy Tindell Vivian—a product of the Midwest who helped make history in the South—died on Friday morning at his home in Atlanta of natural causes at the age of 95, The Associated Press reports.
Born July 30, 1924, in Howard County, Mo., as a child he moved with his mother to Macomb, Ill., where he attended integrated schools and became an active student leader. Vivian enrolled at Western Illinois University after graduating from high school in 1942, but he eventually left school and moved to Peoria, where he met his future wife, Octavia. In Peoria he also participated in his first sit-in, which succeeded in integrating Barton’s Cafeteria in 1947.
Vivian found himself called to the ministry and studied theology at American Baptist College in Nashville, Tenn., but he saw no separation between practicing his faith and pursuing civil rights. In the mid-1950s, he and other ministers formed the Nashville Christian Leadership Conference, an affiliate of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The Nashville conference organized that city’s first sit-ins in 1960, and Vivian marched on City Hall with about 4,000 demonstrators to confront Nashville Mayor Ben West. In 1961 Vivian participated in the Freedom Rides, replacing injured members of the Congress of Racial Equality.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. asked Vivian to join the executive staff of the SCLC and named him national director of affiliates in 1963. Vivian, in an incident that made national headlines, confronted Sheriff Jim Clark on the steps of the Selma, Ala., courthouse while participating in a voter-registration drive in 1965, the same year the Voting Rights Act would eventually pass.
Vivian left the SCLC in 1966, although he remained passionate about fighting inequality and increasing opportunity. (He would return as interim leader of the SCLC in 2012.) He conceived and directed the educational program Vision, which would eventually become Upward Bound. He moved to Chicago to direct the Urban Training Center for Christian Missions, where he trained clergy, community leaders and others to organize. Also in Chicago, as a coordinator for the Coalition for United Community Action, he led a campaign against racism in trade unions and helped mediate a truce among the city’s gangs. In 1969 Vivian penned one of the first books about the civil rights movement, titled Black Power and the American Myth.
By the 1970s Vivian, a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, had moved to Atlanta, where he continued his life’s work. In 1977 he launched the Black Action Strategies and Information Center, a workplace consultancy on race relations and multicultural training. He co-founded the National Anti-Klan Network, now known as the Center for Democratic Renewal, in 1979. Vivian, who counseled four presidents—Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton—on civil rights, continued to lecture on racial justice and political rights for all people well into his 80s. He founded the group Churches Supporting Churches to help rebuild community churches after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and served as its chair. In 2013 President Barack Obama presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Monée Fields-White is a freelance writer and editor based in Los Angeles.