It was founded in 1917 by a former chapter of the Rotary Club headed by Courtney Shropshire. The group wished to put more efforts toward community projects and less toward business success. They selected the name "Civitan" from the latin derivation of the root word for "citizenship". Over time, the club's emphasis has grown toward serving people with developmental disabilities. It currently has more than 40,000 members in 1,000 clubs in 29 countries around the world.
The Civitans' first meeting was held on March 17, 1917. As the United States entered World War I, the newly-formed group turned its attention to supporting soldiers, helping European war orphans, and encouraging voter participation by paying poll taxes.
The club soon turned its attention to expansion, and an International Association of Civitan Clubs was incorporated during a meeting at the Southern Club on April 15, 1920. By 1922, delegates from 115 clubs attended the annual convention, representing 3,300 members. The New York chapter boasted Cornelius Vanderbilt and Franklin D. Roosevelt among its charter members.
The club suffered sharp declines in membership and fundraising during the Great Depression. Some also questioned the necessity of service clubs after the New Deal's creation of relief programs. The organization persevered, in part due to cooperation with Rotary, Kiwanis, and Lions clubs. One of the few brightspots in the 1930s was the creation and rapid growth of the first Junior Civitan clubs.
The organization experienced another noticeable drop in membership at the outbreak of World War II, since many of its members volunteered for military service. Civitans who remained at home organized scrap metal collections, war bond sales, and blood drives. The Shadeyside Civitan Club in Birmingham held so many successful bond drives that the Army Air Forces named a B-25 Mitchell and a P-47 Thunderbolt in the club's honor.
The period after World War II saw another surge in growth. There were 10,000 members by 1947. With membership tripling in size between 1946 and 1956, Civitan became the sixth largest service club in the United States. By 1960, there were 34,000 active Civitans in 998 clubs. One reason that Civitan expanded so quickly was the flexibility that it allowed to clubs in other countries. Compromises over issues such as the Civitan creed and membership dues allowed the ethnically diverse organization to maintain a strong sense of unity.
On a local level, individual Civitan clubs undertake various service projects which benefit their local communities. Examples of club projects include maintaining sections of highways (the Tyler, Texas Civitan Club was the first to volunteer for the "Adopt a Highway" program), promoting the creation of hospitals, supporting local reading programs, sponsoring children in financial need, purchasing playground equipment for developmentally disabled children, and holding events for developmentally disabled individuals. Clubs operate independently of the international organization or other clubs, leaving them free to participate in whatever service they deem appropriate.
While local clubs were free to supporting whatever service programs they wished, Civitan International decided, in 1956, to focus its efforts on service to developmentally-disabled persons. The Civitan International Foundation, established in 1960, provided financial support for many organizations and programs which benefited developmentally-disabled individuals. Civitans becoming some of the first to provide special training for teachers of developmentally disabled children. The Civitan International Foundation established a Civitan International Research Center at UAB in 1990, creating the first institution in the United States to focus solely on researching developmental disabilities. By 2005 it had provided tens of millions of dollars in grants to the center.
Clergy Appreciation Week
One of Civitan's most significant international events is Clergy Appreciation Week, inspired by the story of the "Four Chaplains" who gave their lives to save other civilian and military personnel during the sinking of the USAT Dorchester during World War II. Begun in 1964, the interfaith event honors the sacrifice of the Four Chaplains by encouraging citizens to thank the clergy who serve their communities. The week usually involves Civitan clubs presenting local clergy with an award or certificate of appreciation. Local mayors often sign a proclamation recognizing Clergy Appreciation Week and encouraging its observance.
Junior Civitan International
Junior Civitan International is one of Civitan's oldest and most successful programs. Students between the ages of 13 and 18 can join a Junior Civitan club at their school or in their community. Each Junior Civitan club is sponsored by a senior Civitan club and promotes student leadership, character development, and community service.
World Citizenship Award
Civitan has bestowed an annual "World Citizenship Award" to those "who have made significant contributions to mankind." Recipients of the award include Winston Churchill, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Wernher von Braun, Thor Heyerdahl, and Eunice Kennedy Shriver.
The Civitan Candy Box Project, one of Civitan's oldest and most successful fundraising programs, has raised $50,000,000 since its inception in 1976. Civitan volunteers place boxes of mints at businesses in their community, and patrons donate money to take a piece of candy. Volunteers collect the money, keeping some for club service projects and sending the rest to Civitan International for its charitable projects.
Civitan's other important fundraiser involves the sale of Claxton Bakery's fruitcakes. This partnership began in 1951 when Tampa Civitan club member Earl Carver enjoyed the cake so much that he suggested they be sold nationally as a fundraiser. Each year during the holiday season, local Civitan clubs sell millions of pounds of fruitcake. The proceeds from these sales benefit Civitan International's work with developmentally disabled persons.
Civitan has clubs in 29 countries and maintains a strong international focus. Because of its long history of service in West Africa, Civitan was invited by the Special Court for Sierra Leone to monitor the war crimes trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor, held at the International Criminal Court facilities in The Hague.
- Leonhart, James Chancellor (1962) The Fabulous Octogenarian: Courtney W. Shropshire M. C., Founder and First President of Civitan International. Baltimore, Maryland: Redwood House
- Armbrester, Margaret E. (1992) The Civitan Story. Birmingham: EBSCO Media
- "Civitans Organize Here" (June 16, 1922) The New York Times
- "UAB center receives $920,000 grant from Civitan International" (November 8, 2005) Birmingham Business Journal
- Rebman, Stephanie (January 19, 2017) "Civitan Club renovates HQ, plans park for centennial project." Birmingham Business Journal