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C.T. Vivian, civil rights icon, places papers with MARBL

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Civil rights leader the Rev. C.T. Vivian, pictured at a public conversation Nov. 21, 2013, the day after receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Emory Photo/Video.

Civil rights leader the Rev. C.T. Vivian, who worked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), is placing a portion of his and his late wife's papers with the Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL) at Emory University.

Emory officials made the announcement at a speech Vivian gave on campus Tuesday, Jan. 21 as part of Emory's King Week celebration.

"It's one of the most significant additions to our African American and civil rights material, and a great opportunity for students and scholars to appreciate a life so fully lived by someone who made such important contributions to the world," says MARBL director Rosemary Magee. "In addition, it further establishes Emory as a place that recognizes the history of our own era, and helps us understand how we arrived where we are today and projects these values into the future."

The collection includes a number of papers from Octavia Geans Vivian (1928-2011), who supported her husband's work with the SCLC and was instrumental in the local civil rights movement. She also wrote "Coretta," a biography of Coretta Scott King, originally published in 1970 and revised with additional material in 2006 after Mrs. King's death.

The Vivians' papers contain binders of notes and articles pertaining to civil rights activities and issues, some of C.T.'s essays and SCLC work, Octavia's work on "Coretta," congressional materials related to the creation of Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a holiday, as well as periodicals, programs from King Day celebrations across the country, C.T.'s outlines for speeches, including notes he jotted on napkins and event programs, and other ephemera.

"Some of our papers can't stand the test of time," Vivian said last week. "They need a place to be properly preserved, and Emory does an excellent job."

Octavia collected newspaper clippings of SCLC marches and other civil rights activities, and C.T. says that's one revealing aspect that scholars and researchers will discover in the Vivian papers – how two newspapers in the same town would cover the same story quite differently. "One would try to cover up the past, and one would tell the reality of what was happening," Vivian says. "There were multiple interpretations of the problems."

The SCLC archive is housed at MARBL, and Vivian was instrumental in bringing those records to Emory, says Randall Burkett, curator of MARBL's African American Collections.

"I'm thrilled we're able to have the Vivians' collection of papers, which will anchor our civil rights collections," Burkett says. "These are the papers of people who were on the scene, who were conscious of the importance of what was happening. They knew that the movement was going to change America, and they wanted to preserve their role in that."

About the Vivians

A Baptist minister, Cordy Tindell Vivian is a living legend in the civil rights movement, having joined the SCLC executive staff alongside Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963. Born in 1924 in Howard, Mo., and educated at American Baptist College in Nashville, he participated in his first lunch counter sit-in in 1947. He took part in the Freedom Rides to end segregation in the early 1960s; he was arrested after one Freedom Ride in 1961 and sent to Parchman Prison in Mississippi, where he was beaten by guards.

He is perhaps best known for his altercation on March 7, 1965 — Bloody Sunday — with Sheriff Jim Clark, who punched Vivian on the courthouse steps in Selma, Ala., as he tried to escort a group of African Americans inside to register to vote. The television news coverage of that day's police brutality was an eye-opener for the American public, and Bloody Sunday was a driving force behind President Lyndon Johnson's signing of the Voting Rights Act in August 1965.

Vivian became a well-known and respected preacher and went on to found or co-found other civil rights and anti-racism organizations, including the Center for Democratic Renewal (originally called the Anti-Klan Network), an organization that infiltrated and monitored hate groups.

In addition to authoring "Coretta," Octavia Vivian was both a historian of the movement and an active participant, as were many of the wives of the SCLC leaders. Octavia was a member of the SCLC/Women's Organizational Movement for Equality Now Inc., and she documented the role of women in the civil rights movement as well as her husband's role in the struggle for equality. The two were married for 58 years.

C.T. Vivian's relationship with Emory

Soon after Burkett began his post at Emory as bibliographer of African American collections in 1997, he met Vivian through an Atlanta rare book dealer who had helped Vivian build an extraordinary collection of rare African American historical books. Burkett and the library staff were creating an exhibition of rare books and invited three Atlanta-area top collectors to submit books for the display; Vivian was one of the three.

A longstanding relationship began soon afterward, when the library acquired a number of rare Afro Americana books from Vivian's personal collection, including "Banneker's Almanack" for 1793 and Harriet Wilson's "Our Nig," published in 1859.

In 1999, MARBL (then called Special Collections) and the university hosted a performance of James Weldon Johnson's "God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse," and invited Vivian and other area preachers to deliver the poetic sermons to a full house at Glenn Auditorium.

Vivian was featured prominently in the recent MARBL exhibition "And the Struggle Continues: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference's Fight for Social Change," at Emory's Robert W. Woodruff Library throughout 2013, which highlighted items from the SCLC collection.

Most recently, Vivian was the guest of honor for a public conversation at Emory's Robert W. Woodruff Library, the day after he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, from President Barack Obama at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 20, 2013.

The Vivian papers will remain unprocessed for some time but are available for research by contacting MARBL at or 404-727-6887. Additional general information can be found at the Using MARBL webpage.

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