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ATLANTA – Rev. C.T. Vivian who was a civil rights pioneer and close friend of Martin Luther King Jr. died of natural causes Friday at his home in Atlanta. He was 95.

As early as the 1940s, Vivian began staging sit-ins against segregation in Peoria, Illinois years before lunch-counter protests by college students made national news. He met King soon after the budding civil rights leader’s leadership of the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, and helped translate ideas into action by organizing the Freedom Rides that eventually forced federal intervention across the South.

In 1965, he challenged segregationist Sheriff Jim Clark while trying to register Black voters in Selma, Alabama, where hundreds, then thousands, later marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

“You can turn your back now and you can keep your club in your hand, but you cannot beat down justice. And we will register to vote because as citizens of these United States we have the right to do it,” Vivian declared, wagging his index finger at the sheriff as the cameras rolled. The sheriff then punched him, and news coverage of the assault helped turned a local registration drive into a national phenomenon.

President Barack Obama honored Vivian with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013, saying that “time and again, Reverend Vivian was among the first to be in the action: In 1947, joining a sit-in to integrate an Illinois restaurant; one of the first Freedom Riders; in Selma, on the courthouse steps to register blacks to vote, for which he was beaten, bloodied and jailed.”

According to The New York Times, Vivian founded the Black Action Strategies and Information Center in Atlanta. He also was the deputy director for clergy for Rev. Jesse Jackson’s 1984 presidential campaign.

Vivian married Octavia Geans in 1952 and together they had six children. She died in 2011.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.