Amelia Boynton Robinson: the 'indomitable spirit' that carried a movement

Amelia Boynton Robinson, known as the matriarch of the Voting Rights Act, began advocating as a young girl, handing out leaflets for women's suffrage.

Gregory Smith/AP/File
Amelia Boynton Robinson appears at an American Civil Rights Education Services tour at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta, Aug. 26, 2003. Ms. Boynton Robinson, a civil rights activist who nearly died while helping lead the Selma march on 'Bloody Sunday,' championed voting rights for blacks, and was the first black woman to run for Congress in Alabama, died Wednesday.

Amelia Boynton Robinson, a pivotal figure in the struggle for civil rights in Selma, Ala., whose picture, battered and left unconscious by police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge became an iconic image that publicized the often violent struggle to enfranchise black voters, died Wednesday in a Montgomery Alabama Hospital.

Selma became a flashpoint in the civil rights movement in large part because of Boynton Robinson’s efforts to bring Martin Luther King Jr. to the city and make it a battleground in the fight to grant blacks the right to vote.

Mrs. Boynton Robinson, known as the matriarch of the Voting Rights Act, was one of the organizers of the first march from Selma to Alabama’s capital, Montgomery which lives in infamy as the day known as “Bloody Sunday.”

During the march on March 7, 1965 state troopers teargassed, clubbed, and whipped the 600 non-violent protesters when they attempted to cross the bridge. Boynton Robinson, who was near the front of the march, was knocked unconscious  by the attack, and her image – plastered across newspapers nationwide – helped to galvanize support for civil rights across the country.

In 1965, as a direct outcome of the demonstrations in Selma, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the federal Voting Rights Act into law. Boynton Robinson was invited to the ceremony at the White House as a guest of honor.  

As part of the 50-year commemoration of the marches, Boynton Robinson held hands with the nation’s first black president as they reenacted the march across the bridge that now symbolizes the long march for civil rights in the country.

“She was as strong, as hopeful and as indomitable of spirit – as quintessentially American – as I’m sure she was that day 50 years ago,” President Obama said in a statement on Wednesday. “To honor the legacy of an American hero like Amelia Boynton requires only that we follow her example – that all of us fight to protect everyone’s right to vote.”

But while she is most known for her actions in 1965, Boynton Robinson made civil rights activism a cornerstone of her entire life, from pushing to register black voters in the 1930s and 40s on through the decades to being the first black woman to run for office in the state of Alabama. As a young girl she handed out leaflets advocating for the right for women to vote before the passage of the 19th amendment which granted women suffrage.

"The truth of it is that was her entire life. That's what she was completely taken with," Bruce Boynton told the Associated Press of his mother's role in shaping the civil rights movement. "She was a loving person, very supportive – but civil rights was her life."

In January, Boynton Robinson sat at the State of the Union address as a special guest of Rep. Terri Sewell (D)  of Alabama. Representative Sewell is the first black woman to be elected to Congress in Alabama.

"Without her courageous campaign for the 7th Congressional District, I know that my election to this seat in 2010 would not have been possible," Sewell said in a written statement. Sewell said she'll carry love and admiration for Boynton Robinson with her and will continue working to honor her life's work.

Rep. John Lewis (D) of Georgia, another leader in the civil rights movement, called Boynton Robinson a persistent and dedicated voice in the struggle for civil rights.

"I am so glad she lived to see Dr. King lead a march from Selma to Montgomery, that she lived to see the Voting Rights Act signed into law, that she lived to see the amazing transformation our work gave rise to in America," Representative Lewis said.

For her part, Boynton Robinson said the violence she endured was a small price to pay in the larger struggle to give the nation the right to vote.

“I wasn’t looking for notoriety [when we marched],” she told the New York Post last year. “But if that’s what it took [to get attention], I didn’t care how many licks I got. It just made me even more determined to fight for our cause.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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