PETER FROST remembers the times and struggles of Amelia Boynton Robinson who died on Wednesday aged 104 at her home in Selma, Alabama.
In spring this year, on the 50th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday events in Selma, Alabama, Barrack Obama — first black president of the United States — pushed a 103 year old woman in a wheelchair at the head of the commemorative march.
She was Amelia Boynton Robinson, civil rights activist and one of the leaders of the 1965 Selma March. She died in Selma, Alabama, this week aged 104. She had continued to struggle for progressive causes right up until her death.
Amelia Boynton Robinson is perhaps best remembered for the image of her after state troopers attacked the Selma civil rights march with tear gas and batons. The picture of her, unconscious and bloody(below), flashed around the world and raised sympathy and anger in equal measure wherever it was seen.
On March 7 1965, 600 civil rights marchers headed east out of Selma on US Highway 80. The protest went according to plan until the marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge and entered Dallas County, where they encountered a wall of state troopers and a huge county posse waiting for them on the other side.
The local sheriff had issued an order for all white males over the age of 21 to report to the courthouse that morning to be deputised.
At the bridge the troopers began shoving the demonstrators, knocking many to the ground and beating them with truncheons. Another detachment of troopers fired tear gas, and mounted troopers charged the crowd on horseback.
TV and press images of the brutal attack — with marchers left bloodied and severely injured — won sympathy and support for the Selma voting rights campaigners.
Amelia Boynton, who had helped organise the march as well as marching in it, was beaten unconscious. Photographs of her lying on the road appeared on the front page of newspapers around the world.
In fact she was just one of 17 marchers who were hospitalised and another 50 were treated for lesser injuries. The day soon became known as Bloody Sunday.
Selma is a major town in Dallas County, part of the “Alabama black belt” with a majority black population, 80 per cent of whom lived below the poverty line.
In 1961 of the 15,000 blacks old enough to vote only 130 were registered.
Literacy tests administered unfairly by white registrars kept even educated blacks from registering or voting.
Amelia’s husband Sam and son Bruce joined with others to establish the Dallas County Voters League (DCVL) that tried to register black citizens during the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Their efforts were blocked by state and local officials, the White Citizens’ Council and the Ku Klux Klan. County officials and the Citizens’ Council used such tactics as restricted registration hours to stop blacks registering.
The white community also applied economic pressure, including threatening black people’s jobs, sacking or evicting them and boycotts of black-owned businesses.
There was also much open violence against blacks who tried to register.
In early 1963, Student Nonviolent Co-ordinating Committee organisers Bernard and Colia Liddel Lafayette came Selma to help Amelia’s local DCVL. In mid-June, Bernard was beaten and almost killed by klansmen. Here is his arrest mugshot.
When 32 black schoolteachers applied at the county courthouse to register as voters, they were immediately fired by the all-white school board.
Then on July 2 1964, president Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law, prohibiting segregation of public facilities.
The act was ignored in Selma and much of the South with Jim Crow laws and customs remaining in effect.
Blacks who tried to attend the cinema and eat at the hamburger stand were still beaten and arrested.
On July 6 1964, one of the only two voter registration days that month, 50 black citizens marched to the courthouse to register. The county sheriff arrested them all rather than allow them to apply to vote.
Three days later Judge James Hare issued an injunction that made it illegal for more than two people at a time to talk about civil rights or voter registration in Selma.
It was against this background that Amelia Boynton worked with Dr Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, James Bevel and many other legendary civil rights heroes. A series of marches were planned between Montgomery and Selma.
One of 10 children, Amelia Platts was born in Savannah, Georgia, on August 18 1911. As a child, she travelled with her mother by horse and buggy to campaign for votes for women.
At 14, Amelia entered a college for coloured youth and earned a degree in home economics.
She took a job in Dallas County, Alabama, giving instruction in food, nutrition and homemaking in rural households for the department of agriculture.
With her husband, Samuel William Boynton, she spent decades attempting to register black voters. She had managed to register herself in the early ’30s.
Sam Boynton died in 1963 and the following year Amelia ran for Congress. She was the first woman, black or white, ever to do so. She received about 10 per cent of the vote — a great result given how few blacks had the vote.
In 1990 she was awarded is the Martin Luther King Jr Freedom Medal.
Speaking of her heroic part in the historic Selma civil rights marches she said: “I wasn’t looking for notoriety, but if that’s what it took I didn’t care how many licks I got. It just made me even more determined to fight for our cause.”
This obituary first appeared in the Morning Star 28 August 2015.