In 1963, President John F. Kennedy created the Presidential Medal of Freedom, as America’s highest civilian honor. That year, C.T. Vivian traveled to Washington with Martin Luther King Jr. to help stage the historic March on Washington.
Vivian will be returning to Washington at least twice this year – to participate in the 50th anniversary of the march, and to receive his own Presidential Medal of Freedom.
President Obama announced the latest class of 16 recipients on Thursday. Among this year’s other recipients — who will be honored on an undetermined date later this year — are former President Bill Clinton and media mogul Oprah Winfrey.
“The Presidential Medal of Freedom goes to men and women who have dedicated their own lives to enriching ours,” Obama said in a statement. “This year’s honorees have been blessed with extraordinary talent, but what sets them apart is their gift for sharing that talent with the world. It will be my honor to present them with a token of our nation’s gratitude.”
Vivian is the fourth civil rights veteran who lives in Atlanta to be honored, following former Mayor Andrew Young, civil rights leader the Rev. Joseph Lowery, and U.S. Rep. John Lewis.
“As soon as I heard, the first thing that went through my mind was this honor could create extra influence and opportunities to help more people,” said Vivian, who is now vice president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. “When you think of the problems we are facing … my hope is that we be heard, do more things we want to do for this country.”
Vivian, who celebrated his 89th birthday July 30, first met King soon after the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, which launched King onto the national stage. Vivian quickly became an active member of the fledgling SCLC.
But nine years before Montgomery, Vivian was working to open restaurants to black patrons in Peoria, Ill. As a young theology student in Nashville, Vivian helped organize the first sit-ins in that city. Among his fellow students was Lewis.
“He was very, very active in speaking at the mass meetings and rallies,” Lewis said of Vivian. “Matter of fact, he was one of the people that led, with Diane Nash, one of the first mass marches in the modern day civil rights movement. ” That 1960 march culminated at Nashville City Hall.
Vivian also participated in Mississippi Freedom Rides and served as the SCLC’s national director of affiliates.
After Montgomery, he stood with King in every major campaign until King’s death in 1968.
One of Vivian’s most defining moments, or at least the one that catapulted him into national prominence, proved to be one of the most brutal and public attacks in Civil Rights history and helped shape the movement’s narrative. It was Feb. 15, 1965, in Selma, Ala., one of the most feared cities of the Jim Crow South.
Vivian had led a march to the steps of the Dallas County Courthouse to register voters. Sheriff Jim Clark closed the registrar’s office and blocked the courthouse entrance, forcing the protesters to wait in the rain.
As Vivian contested the decision, Clark punched him in the jaw, sending him tumbling down the steps of the courthouse.
“If we wrong, why don’t you arrest us?” said Vivian as he rose defiantly with blood dripping down his face. “We willing to be beaten for democracy, and you misuse democracy in the streets. You beat people bloody in order that they not have the privilege to vote.”
“It was a necessary moment,” Vivian said Thursday. “It was not about the me. It was about: Does it give us a chance to get rid of an evil system and evil people that run it? You have to confront the evils that are destroying people and stop it.”
Vivian, tall, distinguished and known for his long, eloquent soliloquies, said he heard from the White House a few days ago that he had been selected. He said he was sworn to secrecy and didn’t even tell his family.
“I couldn’t tell them until 3 p.m. (Thursday),” Vivian said. “I wasn’t supposed to and I didn’t. If the president doesn’t want it out, it doesn’t get out. Besides, if you haven’t had it in all these years, what are three or four more days of silence?”
Vivian’s beloved wife and partner of 58 years, Octavia Vivian, will not be at his side as he collects his honor; she died in 2011.
Obama has honored six Georgians with the Medal of Freedom since taking office in 2009. Aside from Vivian, Lowery and Lewis, he has also tapped former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Carter Center official William Foege, who helped lead the effort to eradicate smallpox; Girl Scouts of America founder and Savannah native Juliette Gordon Low; and abstract expressionist painter Jasper Johns, an Augusta native.
“For C.T. Vivian and Bayard Rustin to be receiving it the year of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington,” Lewis said, “it’s just very historic.”
Medal of Freedom recipients for 2013
Former President Bill Clinton is headed back to the White House — just for a day — and Oprah is coming, too. Clinton and Winfrey will be among 16 people that President Barack Obama will venerate later this year with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Others who will receive the medal:
—Daniel Inouye, former senator from Hawaii, World War II veteran and the first Japanese American in Congress. Inouye will receive the award posthumously.
—Ben Bradlee, former executive editor of the Washington Post who oversaw the newspaper’s coverage of Watergate.
—Sally Ride, the first American woman to fly in space. Ride will receive the award posthumously.
—Richard Lugar, former senator from Indiana who worked to reduce the global nuclear threat.
—Gloria Steinem, writer and prominent women’s rights activist.
—Ernie Banks, baseball player who hit more than 500 home runs and played 19 seasons with the Chicago Cubs.
—Bayard Rustin, civil and gay rights activist and adviser to Martin Luther King Jr. Rustin will receive the award posthumously.
—Daniel Kahneman, psychologist who won the Nobel Prize in Economics.
—Loretta Lynn, country music singer.
—Maria Molina, chemist and environmental scientist who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry.
—Arturo Sandoval, Grammy-winning jazz musician who was born in Cuba and defected to the U.S.
—Dean Smith, head coach of University of North Carolina’s basketball team for 36 years.
—Patricia Wald, first woman appointed to U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia and became the court’s chief judge.
—C.T. Vivian, civil rights leader and minister.