The Rev. CT Vivian, an early adviser to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. who organized pivotal civil rights campaigns and spent decades advocating for justice and equality, died Friday at age 95. Vivian, who died of natural causes at home in Atlanta, began staging sit-ins against segregation in Peoria, Illinois, in the 1940s—a dozen years before lunch-counter protests by college students made national news, the AP reports. He met King soon after the budding civil rights leader's leadership of the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, and helped translate ideas into action by organizing the Freedom Rides that forced federal intervention across the South. Vivian boldly challenged a segregationist sheriff while trying to register Black voters in Selma, Alabama, where hundreds, then thousands, later marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
"You can turn your back now and you can keep your club in your hand, but you cannot beat down justice. And we will register to vote because as citizens of these United States we have the right to do it," Vivian declared, wagging his index finger at Sheriff Jim Clark as the cameras rolled. The sheriff then punched him. Vivian got back up, received stitches, and was taken to jail. News coverage of the assault helped turned a local registration drive into a national phenomenon. Former President Obama, who honored Vivian with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013, tweeted Friday that "he was always one of the first in the action—a Freedom Rider, a marcher in Selma, beaten, jailed, almost killed, absorbing blows in hopes that fewer of us would have to."
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