Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

C.T. Vivian: "A Quiet Force"

Rich Egger
C.T. Vivian during a trip to Macomb and WIU in 2012

A life filled with achievement has come to an end.  The Reverend C.T. Vivian, who grew up in Macomb, died Friday in Atlanta, Georgia, just a couple weeks shy of his 96th birthday.

The civil rights leader last paid a visit to Macomb in October 2015 for what proved to be a busy three day trip:

  • He served as Grand Marshal for Western Illinois University’s homecoming parade
  • The city held a ceremony to name a stretch of Highway 67 in his honor
  • He gave a speech to a full house at the Macomb Junior-Senior High School auditorium
  • The school district named the high school library in his honor

Vivian said the books he read while he attended classes in the Macomb district influenced him. He also said he learned from standing up to a school yard bully while he attended Lincoln Elementary.
“Everything that’s happened since then came from the fact that I realized you never take what you know is inhuman treatment,” he said.


Non-Violent Activism

Dr. Vivian headed for Peoria after leaving Western Illinois University. His goal in Peoria was to integrate lunch counters.

His success there caught the attention of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and Vivian worked alongside King during the civil rights movement, which used non-violent means to bring about change.

Credit Rich Egger
The Reverend C.T. Vivian received a standing ovation before and after his speech at Macomb Junior-Senior High School in 2015.

“Non-violence always will be the answer. The participants have to be able to be non-violent. That is the issue,” Vivian said during a video interview ten years ago with J.Q. Adams, who taught at Western.

Vivian went on to say activists in the ‘50s and ‘60s trained in non-violent tactics.

“It wasn’t like we just stepped off the street and said ‘I want to do something.’ We were well trained.”

During the civil rights movement, Vivian risked his life to help organize the Freedom Rides and register voters in Alabama.  He later directed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and he provided civil rights counsel to Presidents Johnson, Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and Obama.

President Obama in 2013 honored Vivian with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is the nation’s highest civilian honor.

Credit Rich Egger
Macomb School Board member Jim LaPrad, C.T. Vivian, and former school board member Chris Sutton (left to right). LaPrad and Sutton suggested the school district name something after Vivian.

A Quiet Force

Tammie Leigh Brown-Edwards, the first Black female member of the Macomb City Council, called Vivian “a quiet force.”

“He helped desegregate lunch counters, swimming pools, beaches. He went face-to-face with Bull Connor – there are plenty of pictures of that. He is the epitome of non-violent civil rights,” said Brown-Edwards.

Mayor Mike Inman issued a statement in which he called Vivian a lifelong, passionate advocate for racial and social justice.

“The world has lost a giant voice and a determined laborer for racial equity,” Inman said in the statement.

Reverend Vivian pushed for non-violent change throughout his adult life. For example, during his final visit to Macomb, he decried the influx of money in politics. He said billionaires were putting huge sums of money into electing their own people and the Supreme Court was allowing money to be used as the vote.

“How long will we have before we do not really have a democratic society? That’s the real fear. And I hope before I die, I will at least be in on that,” he said.

Dr. Vivian did not live long enough to see that change come about. But during his long life he played a pivotal role in advancing social justice and promoting racial equality

And during that final trip to the place where he grew into a leader, Vivian said he believed the day has passed when movements need a great leader. He said he felt progress should instead come from people believing in democracy and decency.

This story was produced by Tri States Public Radio.  TSPR relies on financial support from our readers and listeners in order to provide coverage of the issues that matter to west central Illinois, southeast Iowa, and northeast Missouri. As someone who values the content created by TSPR's news department please consider making a financial contribution.

Rich is TSPR's News Director.