ATLANTA — At age 87, civil rights veteran C.T. Vivian could have easily retired from the struggle for justice and equality, but instead he is the new vice president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
As the venerable civil rights organization emerges from years of turmoil over its management and finances, Vivian's return to the leadership lends SCLC a renewed credibility and a tangible link to what can seem like a bygone period.
"It just feels good to know that the organization that really changed America in the last half of the 20th century is, in fact, going to be back in full operation," Vivian said. "That's why I come back as vice president. You're only worthy of what you're willing to continue to do."
A veteran of more than six decades in the civil rights struggle, Vivian joined in his first sit-in demonstrations in the 1940s in Peoria, Ill., long before the movement became front-page news.
He met the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. soon after King's victory in the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, and became an active member of the fledgling Southern Christian Leadership Conference — which King co-founded — just a few years later.
Now, at an age when many of his contemporaries are long retired or long gone, Vivian is still working in the struggle for justice and equality for African-Americans.
He said the movement for civil rights isn't just something that happened years ago — it's something for the younger generation to continue today.
"Most people think of Martin King as history ... it was something past, not something you can use today," Vivian explained. "Young people always want to know, 'What was it like?' All of us wish Martin was here. We did it. We were involved."
The minister, author and activist says he wants SCLC's attention again focused on the nonviolent direct action, to address the lingering plagues of war, poverty and racism that King fought against at SCLC's height.
Ambassador Andrew Young, who also worked alongside King in SCLC, said Vivian's appointment could not be more appropriate.
"He has always been one of the people who had the most insight, wisdom, integrity and dedication," said Young, who turns 80 in March. "The amazing thing is that C.T.'s still got the energy and vitality and the clarity of thought to be a big help. It's the best thing that's happened to SCLC since I left."
As a young theology student in Nashville, Tenn., Vivian helped organize the first sit-ins in that city, and later participated in the Freedom Rides in Mississippi. Under King's leadership at SCLC, Vivian served as the national director of affiliates. After King's death in 1968, he continued to fight for equality and diversity, and has served on SCLC's board of directors.
SCLC's historic efforts on issues including voter equality and desegregation of public accommodations were overshadowed in recent years by infighting.
In 2010, SCLC seemed at the dawn of a new era, as the group elected the Rev. Bernice King — daughter of the SCLC patriarch — to lead the organization. She would have been the SCLC's first woman president. However, allegations of financial mismanagement caused a deep rift among several long-serving board members, bringing SCLC to near extinction, and King ultimately declined to take the helm.
Prosecutors in Georgia ultimately found no proof to support a complaint that two ousted SCLC board members took more than $560,000 from the organization, but the damage had been done. Many in the black community, including SCLC veterans like Young and the Rev. Joseph Lowery, were calling for the group's end.
Early last year, the group elected a new president, the Rev. Howard Creecy, who vowed to restore SCLC's focus. However, he died suddenly in July, leaving SCLC's future in doubt.
Since then, King's nephew, Isaac Newton Farris Jr., has been working to rebuild the organization, alongside veterans including Bernard LaFayette Jr., a King lieutenant who now serves as board chairman. SCLC has also focused on recruiting and training young people, a focus Vivian said has always been an essential component of its success.
"You learn by doing," Vivian said. "We've got youth and age together. We don't care how young people are. They should be called to struggle for their freedom."
In the 55 years since SCLC's founding, Vivian points out that the strategy of nonviolent direct action has not been implemented as effectively by any other group. His aim is for SCLC to be among the groups at the forefront of driving home the need for the strategy again today.
"There must always been the understanding of what Martin had in mind for this organization," Vivian said. "Nonviolent, direct action makes us successful. We learned how to solve social problems without violence. We cannot allow the nation or the world to ever forget that."