For more than a century, good citizens around the world have worked in tireless service to impact the lives of those in need. They call themselves Civitans.

Beginning with one local club in 1917, a group of business leaders in Birmingham, Alabama formed a global organization based on the empowering message of fellowship, knowledge and service to others. Within a decade of that first meeting, more than one hundred Civitan clubs were born.

“The dearest thing in life to me is the inspiration which urges me on to give the best that is in me to the “builders of good citizenship,” and makes of it a labor of love.”

Dr. Courtney W. Shropshire, Founder of Civitan International

Civitans worldwide share a servant’s heart—a compassion for neighbors and strangers alike. Civitan rosters have contained the names of five U.S. Presidents, astronauts, industrialists, and inventors—leaders who changed the world in a very real sense. Club rosters also include the names of many thousands of individuals who have impacted lives in ways just as profound.

Through two world wars, the Great Depression, and the Civil Rights Movement, Civitan members led the way for society. Civitan was the first service organization to integrate—in the 1940s, in the South—marking one of many milestones in the organization’s history.

In the 1940s, Civitans in Baltimore were inspired by the story of Tommy McNulty, a young man born with Down syndrome, and began raising money and awareness for special educators in the area. In 1952, Dr. Shropshire, then living in Baltimore, befriended the McNulty family and began to advocate for Civitan to provide more support for teachers. As a result, Civitan unanimously adopted service to individuals with I/DD as its primary focus in 1956.

Since 1992, Civitan has sponsored the Civitan International Research Center, a cutting-edge facility focused on finding cures and developing treatments for issues such as autism, Rett syndrome, down syndrome, and many other brain-related disorders. Today, Civitan International is the only service organization dedicated to serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

An Opportunity to Serve

Civitan International offers people of all ages an opportunity to serve others. As early as 1927, Civitan had a presence in high school clubs which became known as Junior Civitan. In 1939, Civitan officially adopted Junior Civitan into the International organization and began issuing official club charters. Junior Civitan remains a vital part of the Civitan experience—holding an annual convention and conducting two major fundraising efforts each year for the Civitan International Research Center.

In 1958, Collegiate Civitan clubs were started at campuses in North America. Now known as Campus Civitan, college clubs offer students an opportunity to develop leadership skills while providing valuable service to causes in their respective communities.

In 1974, Civitan became the first major service club organization in America to admit women to full membership. Another milestone for service organizations recorded in 1989 when Polly Mooney became the first female leader of a major service organization when she was elected to serve as International President of Civitan for the 1990-91 term.

International Expansion

From the beginning, in 1917, Civitan International has had a global focus. The founders believed the values of the organization, rooted in service to others, had a universal appeal. The first international club was chartered in Switzerland in 1922 followed by a club in Ontario. Although these clubs folded during the Great Depression, Civitan expanded into Toronto in 1932 and remains active there today.

Civitan returned to Europe in 1969 when the “mother club” in Birmingham, Alabama sponsored a new club in Norway. This expansion overseas sparked much international growth for Civitan. Germany and Sweden added clubs in 1970, strengthening Civitan’s foothold in Europe.

Civitan expanded into Asia with the Seoul Civitan Club in South Korea in 1974 and the Nippon Civitan Club in Japan in 1975. Civitan exists in more than 30 nations with clubs in North America, Central America, Africa, Europe, Asia and the Pacific islands making it a truly global organization dedicated to service to others.

Civitans in the United States

In 1917, a group of business and professional leaders were meeting in Birmingham, Alabama, as a part of a national civic club. They were concerned about their community and world, but they thought that the club focused too much on personal gain. These men wanted to make a difference, and they believed that their actions could help build a better world.

Giving up the charter they had purchased, they set out to make a more suitable club. On March 17, 1917, these men formed an independent service organization. Eventually, they settled on the name Civitan, coined from the Latin word civitas, meaning, “citizenship.” “Builders of Good Citizenship” was a natural motto for the civic-minded group.

World War I began just one month after the club formed. Civitan continued on a purely local basis during these frantic war years, with many of the club’s early efforts supporting soldiers. Returning veterans were warmly welcomed back into the club after the war, and Civitan’s service activities broadened.

The dream of an international organization began with Dr. Courtney Shropshire, a local surgeon and the club’s third president. He shared his vision with a few close friends in the Birmingham Club, and the proposal was given unanimous approval. The process to incorporate was begun. When the group met at the Southern Club on April 15, 1920, Civitan International was born. Officers elected included Dr. Courtney Shropshire, president; Rev. J. A. MacSporran, vice president; John Fry, treasurer; and John Mix, secretary. Charter Number One went to the Birmingham Civitan Club, later designated as “The Mother Club of Civitan International.”

Clubs were chartered across the country in the following months. By June of 1921, when the first international convention was held in Birmingham, there were 30 clubs and more than 300 delegates in attendance. At the second convention in Chattanooga, Tennessee, delegates from 115 clubs attended. By this time, there were more than 3,300 Civitans throughout the United States. Delegates to the 1925 convention bestowed the title “Founder of Civitan International” on Shropshire, the only person to ever serve two terms as president.

From the very beginning, Civitan encouraged its clubs to seek out and fulfill needs within their communities. Some truly outstanding projects were undertaken by these early Civitans. Knoxville, Tenessee, Civitans raised $100,000 to build a three-story hospital for indigent tuberculosis patients in 1923. When the local school committee was deadlocked, Rogersville, Alabama, Civitans secured $40,000 in funding to build to build a new high school in 1929. Other Civitans paid for operations so that crippled children could walk, built parks, served as big brothers to troubled boys, and registered voters. Their dreams were big, their sights high, and their accomplishments great.

Aid to those less fortunate was a significant factor in early projects. Concern for developmentally disabled children was a natural extension of the early efforts to assist crippled children. By the 1950s, Civitan work in this area had made giant strides. A significant milestone was reached with the decision to adopt the developmentally disabled as a major service focus.

One of Civitan’s signature fundraisers began in 1951. Civitan Earl Carver stopped by a small bakery in Claxton, Georgia. He purchased a loaf of the bakery’s fruit cake. It was so good that he purchased others to take home to Florida. He suggested that his club sell the cake to raise money for projects. His club liked the idea – and the sample cakes! Since then, Civitan and Claxton Fruit Cake have become synonymous during the holiday season in the United States and Canada.

In 1960, the Civitan International Foundation was established. When Courtney Shropshire died in 1965, a scholarship fund for deserving college students was established in his memory. Since 1965, hundreds of students have benefited from this program.

An informal ladies’ auxiliary had been a part of Civitan since the late 1920s, but women had never been true members of Civitan. Membership was formally opened to women in 1974, making Civitan the first major, all-male service club to accept women. Soon Civitans were building all-female clubs, and most established clubs began accepting both men and women.

Civitan’s other well-known fundraiser began in 1976. Louisville, Kentucky, Civitans approached the executive board about a project to place candy boxes in restaurants. Patrons would deposit loose change in return for a mint. Since then, the Candy and Coin Box Project has raised over $50 million for Civitan’s charitable projects.

Civitan’s flagship project is the UAB Civitan International Research Center. Dedicated in 1992, the Research Center is located at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. It is the first institution of its kind in the United States to focus solely on researching developmental disabilities. Civitans are once again reaching out to those in need in new ways—this time not only by providing treatment but also by searching for ways to prevent mental and developmental disabilities.

International Club Growth

Dr. Shropshire always envisioned Civitan as a truly international organization. Unfortunately, early attempts at international growth were not successful. Civitan’s first club outside of the United States was chartered in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1922. In May 1925, the Hamilton Civitan Club was chartered in Ontario, Canada. Both of these clubs failed to survive the worldwide Depression of the 1930s.

The first successful international club was chartered in Toronto, Canada in 1932, when a former president of the Birmingham Civitan Club moved to Toronto for business reasons. Civitan was now in two nations—Canada and the United States. Due to the high cost of maintaining clubs in foreign countries and poor economic conditions worldwide, Civitan would concentrate on these two countries for growth during the next decades. It would take Civitan 37 more years to venture outside North America.

The first European club was chartered in Norway in 1969, sponsored by the Mother Club of Civitan in Birmingham, Alabama. The new Norwegian clubs spread the Civitan message to other countries. In 1970, clubs were chartered in Germany and Sweden.

Civitan’s growth in Asia began in 1974 when an army officer was transferred from Georgia to South Korea. Before leaving for his new post, the Georgia North District Governor-elect asked him to establish a new Civitan club in Korea. After seeking outstanding Korean business and professional people, he quickly connected with the president of Kyung Hee University. The Seoul Civitan Club was chartered in August 1974. The first Japanese club was established after a Coca-Cola executive and Civitan member was transferred back to Japan; the Nippon Civitan Club chartered in June 1975.

Civitan growth has continued around the world. Clubs are now found in dozens of countries, including Bangladesh, Jordan, India, Russia, Nepal, Ghana, and Pakistan. Courtney Shropshire’s vision of an international organization that would create “builders of good citizenship” around the globe has finally become a reality.