Field general for civil rights

CORDY TINDELL VIVIAN July 30, 1924 – July 17, 2020

President Barack Obama awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to civil rights leader Rev. Cordy Tindell 'C.T.' Vivian in the East Room at the White House on Nov. 20, 2013. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT)
Five years before his death last July at age 95, civil rights icon Rev. C. T. Vivian was strolling the halls of Macomb High School in the Illinois town where he spent most of his younger years.

“I would never have been who I was if not for Macomb, Illinois,” he told an audience during an earlier visit in 2010. In 2013 he was honored with a Presidential Medal of Freedom. At his death The New York Times called him “field general” for Martin Luther King, Jr.

Six-year-old Vivian was brought across the Mississippi River to Macomb by his mother and grandmother in 1930 because they knew the city’s schools were integrated. He told his story with proud affection. “We lost everything in the Great Depression, and they wanted to protect the one thing they still had,” he recalled, speaking of himself in 2010. “They wanted to leave Missouri because of segregation, so we came to Macomb because I could start first grade here and go all the way through college.”

Cordy Tindell was shortened to C. T. for most of his life. He did enroll in Lincoln Grade School and went on to Macomb High. He is recalled as an active student leader, including membership in the Spider Club, students who wrote for the yearbook. That success followed him when he enrolled in what is now Western Illinois University where he quickly gained the title of sports editor for The Western Courier. His bylined column was called “POPPIN’ OFF.” Vivian left Western long before earning a degree. Most accounts say racism played a part, specifically that a professor denied him membership in the English Club for reasons of race. Decades later the school awarded him a bachelor of arts degree.

Peoria became Vivian’s next home. He was recreation director for Carver Community Center (which turned 100 in 2020). In 1947 he led his first sit-in demonstrations, attempting to integrate Barton’s Cafeteria. It worked. Of course the method became famous a dozen years later at Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina.

By 1955 Vivian was studying divinity at American Baptist College in Nashville, Tennessee. There he encountered others who trailblazed much of the modern U.S. civil rights movement. By 1963 he was with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference where King made him National Director of Affiliates. His most public moment came in 1965 when he confronted County Sheriff Jim Clark on the courthouse steps in Selma, Alabama. Vivian spoke forcefully on behalf of people being denied voting rights. Then the burly sheriff broke a finger landing a left roundhouse to Vivian’s face, sending the slender protester to the ground. “It was a clear engagement,” Vivian recounted later. “This is what movement meant.” Vivian’s work continued, including several years back in Illinois organizing in Chicago. He settled in Atlanta for the last decades of his life with his second wife, activist and author Octavia, until her death in 2011.

Macomb High School invited Vivian to return in 2015 for the dedication of the school library in his honor. On Oct. 1, students were gathered in Fellheimer Auditorium listening to a 90-year-old civil rights soldier reflect. The event was well-covered by reporter Lainie Steelman from The McDonough County Voice. “It started here,” Steelman quoted Vivian. “I also learned that no matter what happens, you’re better off having stood up to whatever the problem, than you are ducking, lying, grinning.”

Patrick Twomey is Macomb’s school superintendent. In an interview for this piece, he recalled being on the phone with Vivian while making arrangements for the library dedication and being asked if he were related to John Twomey. In fact John, now 97, is Patrick’s uncle. Vivian remembered interviewing Twomey, a miler on the 1940s track team at Western back when he was sports editor. “They told me this cross-country stuff was pretty rough,” begins Vivian’s “POPPIN’ OFF” column from Nov. 11, 1942. He goes on to marvel at Twomey and others who run distance races bare-legged in whatever weather. He calls them “the thinclads” and praises their endurance. So in 2015 in that school auditorium there was a reunion after 72 years. As the superintendent described it recently, “They hugged and hugged and hugged.”

Early this fall the city of Macomb partnered with area civil rights advocates to celebrate the little boy who came to town in 1930 and went on to help shape a nation. Mayor Mike Inman hosted two of Vivian’s daughters, Jo Ann Walker and Denise Morse, for the dedication of the Vivian Homesite as an Illinois State Historical Site and Macomb’s proclamation of every Sept. 26 as Rev. Dr. C. T. Vivian Day.

Vivian’s official private funeral was in Atlanta on July 22. One day before, a horse-drawn carriage carried his remains past King’s tomb and to the Georgia Capitol where he lay in state.

Shortly after, Barack Obama’s eulogy appeared in Springfield on the front page of the monthly Pure News. “Today we’ve lost a founder of modern America,” the former president wrote, adding that 2020’s massive rights protests likely gave “the Reverend a final dose of hope before his long and well-deserved rest.”

Another moving tribute rolled out on a muggy, late-July Sunday on one of three vacant lots along East Adams Street, said to be the only part of Macomb African Americans could live in a century ago. It’s where the Vivian family’s modest home stood, not far from some railroad tracks. The NAACP of McDonough County along with Alpha Phi Alpha, the nation’s oldest Black college fraternity, staked a large open tent under ancient catalpa trees.

More than 100 distanced and masked mourners heard Western’s interim president, Martin Abraham, Mayor Inman and others speak of Vivian’s importance locally and far beyond. Then a dozen dark-suited Alpha Phi Alpha men, young and old, moved to the microphone. Vivian, like King and many well-known Black leaders, belonged. These current members gathered in the tent-shade for the fraternity’s Omega Service Rite. They prayed and spoke and finally sang Vivian into a chapter reserved for all deceased brothers, the Omega chapter.

They ended singing these words:
Farewell, dear brother, transcendent are thou
Thy spirit shall dwell with us now
We cherish thy mem’ry, thy good name we’ll revere
To thy glory, thy honor, BROTHER, dear.

Doug Kamholz of Springfield graduated from Sangamon State University’s Public Affairs Reporting program, after which he sold work to the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, NPR and many lesser media outlets. He had the privilege of interviewing the Dalai Lama, Gerald Ford and several civil rights icons, though not Rev. Vivian.

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