The Rev. C. T. Vivian, a pioneering civil rights organizer and field general for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the historic struggle for racial justice a half-century ago, died on Friday at his home in Atlanta. He was 95.
Two of his daughters, Kira Vivian and Denise Morse, confirmed the death. Ms. Morse said Mr. Vivian had been in hospice care.
In a nation trying to come to grips with racial inequality in the 1960s, Mr. Vivian was a paladin of nonviolence on the front lines of bloody confrontations. He led passive protesters through shrieking white mobs and, with discipline and endurance, absorbed the blows of segregationists and complicit law enforcement officials across the South.
Mr. Vivian was a Baptist minister and a member of Dr. King’s inner circle of advisers, alongside Fred L. Shuttlesworth, Wyatt Tee Walker, Ralph Abernathy and other civil rights luminaries. He was the national director of some 85 local affiliate chapters of the S.C.L.C. from 1963 to 1966, directing protest activities and training in nonviolence as well as coordinating voter registration and community development projects.
In Selma and Birmingham, Ala.; St. Augustine, Fla.; Jackson, Miss.; and other segregated cities, Mr. Vivian led sit-ins at lunch counters, boycotts of businesses, and marches that continued for weeks or months, raising tensions that often led to mass arrests and harsh repression.
Televised scenes of marchers attacked by police officers and firefighters with cattle prods, snarling dogs, fire hoses and nightsticks shocked the national conscience, legitimized the civil rights movement and led to passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“Nonviolence is the only honorable way of dealing with social change, because if we are wrong, nobody gets hurt but us,” Mr. Vivian said in an address to civil rights workers, as recounted in “At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68” (2006), by Taylor Branch. “And if we are right, more people will participate in determining their own destinies than ever before.”
Like his followers, Mr. Vivian was arrested often, jailed and beaten. In 1961, at the end of a violence-plagued interracial Freedom Ride to Jackson, Mr. Vivian was dispatched to the Hinds County Prison Farm, where he was brutally beaten by guards.
In 1964, Mr. Vivian was nearly killed in St. Augustine, America’s oldest continuously inhabited city and one of its most rigidly segregated, where he had joined Dr. King in an extended campaign of peaceful protest. On an Atlantic beach, “roving gangs of whites whipped Black bathers with chains and almost drowned C.T. Vivian,” Stephen B. Oates wrote in “Let the Trumpet Sound,” his 1982 biography of Dr. King.
Accompanying Dr. King on a voter-registration drive in 1965, Mr. Vivian confronted Sheriff Jim Clark outside a courthouse in Selma, where 1,400 Black voters had been barred from registering. As television cameras rolled, The New York Times reported, Mr. Vivian asked Sheriff Clark to admit 100 Black people lined up behind him — just to get in out of a lightly falling rain.
Sheriff Clark refused.
Mr. Vivian, a tall, angular man with small aesthetic features, called Sheriff Clark a “brute,” “fascist” and “Hitler.”
The 220-pound sheriff struck Mr. Vivian in the mouth with his right fist, sending him reeling down the courthouse steps. Sheriff Clark then ordered deputies to arrest Mr. Vivian for “criminal provocation.” The clergyman was dragged away, blood streaming down his face.
Sheriff Clark later told reporters he had no recollection of the incident. “Of course the camera might make me out a liar,” he said. “I do have a sore finger.”
After leaving Dr. King’s staff, Mr. Vivian founded educational and civil rights organizations, lectured widely, promoted jobs for Black Chicagoans and wrote “Black Power and the American Myth” (1970), an early assessment of the civil rights movement.
“It was Martin Luther King who removed the Black struggle from the economic realm and placed it in a moral and spiritual context,” Mr. Vivian wrote. “It was on this plane that The Movement first confronted the conscience of the nation.”
Cordy Tindell Vivian was born in Boonville, Mo., on July 30, 1924, the only child of Robert and Euzetta Tindell Vivian. His family moved to Macomb, Ill., when he was 6, and he graduated from Macomb High School in 1942. He studied history at Western Illinois University in Macomb, but he dropped out and became a recreation worker in Peoria, Ill., where he joined his first protest in 1947, helping to desegregate a cafeteria.
In 1952, Mr. Vivian married Octavia Geans, the author of “Coretta” (1970), the first biography of Dr. King’s wife, Coretta Scott King. She died in 2011.
In addition to his daughters Kira and Denise, Mr. Vivian’s survivors include three of the couple’s other children, Mark, Anita and Albert. Another son, Cordy Jr., died in 2010.
Denise Morse said he is also survived by a daughter, Jo Anna Walker.
While studying for the ministry at the American Baptist College in Nashville in 1957, Mr. Vivian joined services at a packed local church and for the first time heard Dr. King speak on nonviolence.
Mr. Vivian “was spellbound,” Mr. Oates recounted in his biography of Dr. King. “He had studied Gandhian techniques, but until now had never understood the philosophy behind them.”
In 1959, Mr. Vivian met the Rev. James Lawson, who was teaching nonviolent strategies to members of the Nashville Student Movement. His students included Diane Nash, Bernard Lafayette, James Bevel and John Lewis, who all became prominent civil rights organizers.
They were also the nucleus of a successful three-month sit-in campaign at lunch counters in Nashville in 1960. As 4,000 protesters marched on City Hall, Mr. Vivian and Ms. Nash confronted Mayor Ben West, who acknowledged that racial discrimination was morally wrong.
“In less than three weeks, the lunch counters were desegregated,” David Halberstam, who covered the campaign for The Nashville Tennessean, later wrote in The Times.
A year after the Nashville campaign, Mr. Vivian replaced an injured member of the Congress of Racial Equality on the Freedom Ride to Mississippi, and submitted to his first beating. It was a fearful experience.
“Going to Mississippi in 1961 was a whole different world,” he was quoted as saying in “King Remembered” (1986), by Flip Schulke and Penelope O. McPhee. “You knew you could easily be killed there.”
After a year as a pastor in Chattanooga, Mr. Vivian helped organize Tennessee’s contingent for the 1963 March on Washington and was invited to join Dr. King’s staff.
Mr. Vivian’s civil rights work continued for a half century. He became director of the Urban Training Center for Christian Mission in Chicago in 1966 and dean of the Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, N.C., in 1972.
He later founded the Black Action Strategies and Information Center in Atlanta to foster workplace race relations and was a founder of the National Anti-Klan Network, which monitored hate groups. It was later renamed the Center for Democratic Renewal to reflect broader educational goals.
He was deputy director for clergy in the 1984 presidential campaign of the Rev. Jesse Jackson; appeared on “Eyes on the Prize” (1987), a 14-part PBS documentary on the civil rights era; and was later the focus of a PBS special, “The Healing Ministry of Dr. C.T. Vivian.”
He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, from President Barack Obama in 2013.