Studying for the ministry at American Baptist College in Nashville, Tennessee in 1959, Rev. Vivian met Rev. James Lawson, who was teaching Mahatma Gandhi's nonviolent direct action strategy to the Student Central Committee. Diane Nash, Bernard Lafayette, James Bevel, James Forman, John Lewis and other students from American Baptist, Fisk University and Tennessee State University executed a systematic nonviolent campaign for justice. On April 19, 1960, 4,000 demonstrators marched on City Hall where Rev. Vivian and Diane Nash challenged Nashville Mayor Ben West. As a result, Mayor West publicly agreed that racial discrimination was morally wrong. Many of those students became part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
He founded the Nashville Christian Leadership Conference, organizing the first sit-ins there in 1960 and the first civil rights march in 1961. Rev. Vivian was a rider on the first "Freedom Bus" into Jackson, Mississippi, and went on to work alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on his Executive Staff in Birmingham, Selma, Chicago,Nashville, the March on Washington; Danville, Virginia, and St. Augustine, Florida. During the summer following the Selma Movement, Rev. Vivian conceived and directed an educational program, Vision, and put 702 Alabama students in college with scholarships (this program later became Upward Bound). His 1970 Black Power and the American Myth was the first book on the Civil Rights movement by a member of King's staff.
In the 1970s he moved to Atlanta, and in 1977 founded the Black Action Strategies and Information Center (BASICS), a consultancy on multiculturalism and race relations in the workplace and other contexts. In 1979 he co-founded, with Anne Braden, the Center for Democratic Renewal (initially as the National Anti-Klan Network), an organization where blacks and whites worked together in response to white supremacist activity. In 1984 he served in Jesse Jackson's presidential campaign, as the national deputy director for clergy. In 1994 he helped to establish, and served on the board of Capitol City Bank and Trust Co., a black-owned Atlanta bank. He serves currently on the board of Every Church a Peace Church.
Rev. Vivian continues to speak publicly and offer workshops, and has done so at many conferences around the country and the world, including with the United Nations. He was featured as an activist and an analyst in the civil rights documentary, Eyes on the Prize, and has been featured in a PBS special, The Healing Ministry of Dr. C. T. Vivian. He has made numerous appearances on Oprah as well as the Montel Williams Show and Donahue. He is the focus of the biography, Challenge and Change by Lydia Walker.