Rev. C.T. Vivian, president of Atlanta’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, joined 15 others — including former President Bill Clinton and media mogul Oprah Winfrey — in being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor bestowed by the president, on Wednesday.
“The Rev. C.T. Vivian was a stalwart activist on the march toward racial equality. Whether at a lunch counter, on a Freedom Ride, or behind the bars of a prison cell, he was unafraid to take bold action in the face of fierce resistance,” according to the White House citation read before President Obama draped the red, white and blue medal around the neck of Cordy Tindell ‘C.T.’ Vivian.
In awarding Vivian the medal, President Obama recognized just a few of the 89-year-old civil rights activists accomplishments.
“We salute pioneers who pushed our nation towards greater justice and equality,” said Obama. “A Baptist minister, C.T. Vivian was one of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s closest advisors. ‘Martin taught us,’ he says, ‘that it’s in the action that we find out who we really are.’ And time and again, Reverend Vivian was among the first to be in the action: In 1947, joining a sit-in to integrate an Illinois restaurant; one of the first Freedom Riders; in Selma, on the courthouse steps to register blacks to vote, for which he was beaten, bloodied and jailed. Rosa Parks said of him, “Even after things had supposedly been taken care of and we had our rights, he was still out there, inspiring the next generation, including me,” helping kids go to college with a program that would become Upward Bound. And at 89 years old, Reverend Vivian is still out there, still in the action, pushing us closer to our founding ideals.”
When Vivian found out he would be awarded the Medal of Freedom he was with Daily World publisher M. Alexis Scott. Vivian told the Daily World in an exclusive interview that he plans to use the award to do more good for African Americans. Read more about Vivian and how he plans to put himself and his medal to good use.
“I was thankful. I was just thankful, because here’s the thing, I know how much good you can do with that,” Vivian told the Daily World. “Programs and ideas that I’ve wanted to do in order to push things ahead and make things better [could be done]. But it’s so difficult, number one, to get attention and difficult to raise money.”
Among the good works Vivian wants to focus on are the nation’s high dropout rate, particularly for African-American students; creating a C.T. and Octavia Vivian library to share the archives of he and his wife; and working for social justice. Vivian spoke specifically about the importance of education in light of what he called a “racist culture.”
“We’re living in a global world where education becomes even more valuable now than ever,” he said. “And here we are, this is what W.E.B. DuBois called the coalition of people trying to function within a racist culture where a child can be murdered and they don’t even pick up the white guy that murdered him for over a month, about a month and a half really. I’ve had a program for that.”
Vivian was honored with the award along with 15 others, including television superstar Oprah Winfrey. The White House and President Barack Obama made the announcement at 3 p.m. yesterday and Vivian says his phone has not stopped ringing since.
“Of course Oprah Winfrey’s name is going to be above ours, but that makes the point is that when you are receiving an honor with people like that it makes it easier to get things done,” he said, “more people know about what you’re doing and what you’re thinking and who you are and what your past has been, so they can trust you and move forward on the things that you’re trying to do. This is what was on my mind.”
A longtime member of the SCLC and a lieutenant of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Vivian was a leader in the push for nonviolence and civil rights in the U.S. He was a member of the Freedom Riders and helped organize numerous sit-ins, most notably the Nashville Movement, and pushed for justice and racial equality alongside King and leaders from the Congress of Racial Equality, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and other luminary organizations.
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