Amelia Boynton Robinson, who has died at the age of 104, led voting drives and ran for US Congress as a civil rights activist in Alabama. She became best known for the severe beating she received at the hands of police during the 1965 "Bloody Sunday" confrontation at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, which so shocked the nation.
Born when slavery and the Civil War were still in living memory, she became a voting rights activist in the 1930s and was a friend of Martin Luther King Jnr, Rosa Parks and other civil rights leaders in the 1950s and 1960s. She lived long enough to attend President Obama's State of the Union address last January and to accompany him across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in March, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Selma march that almost claimed her life. She was portrayed by Lorraine Toussaint in the 2014 film Selma.
In 1934, Boynton Robinson became one of the few African American women registered to vote in Selma. She and her husband, Bill Boynton, worked for the county agricultural extension service before opening property and insurance offices. For years, her son said, she was publicly known by only her initials, AP Boynton, so that white people would not dismissively call her by her first name.
The Boyntons, leaders in Selma's black community, met King in 1954. After her husband died in 1963, Boynton Robinson became the first African American woman in Alabama to run for Congress, losing in the 1964 Democratic primary. Her campaign brought attention to the lack of voting rights among African Americans in the South; more than half the residents of Selma and surrounding Dallas County were African American, but only two per cent were registered to vote.
In January 1965, while leading a voters' drive at the courthouse in Selma, she was charged with "criminal provocation" and was arrested by the county's notoriously race-baiting sheriff, Jim Clark. "When she refused to leave the sidewalk in front of the courthouse, Sheriff Clark grabbed her by the back of her collar and pushed her roughly and swiftly for half a block into a patrol car," the New York Times reported.
King, who was watching from across the street, went to officials of the Justice Department to demand a court injunction against the sheriff. "It was one of the most brutal and unlawful acts I have seen an officer commit," he said at the time.
Things would get worse. With others, Boynton Robinson planned a march on 7 March 1965 from Selma to the Alabama capital of Montgomery, more than 50 miles away. As about 600 marchers walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they were met by 200 state troopers, plus posses of white men, many on horseback, deputised for the day by Sheriff Clark.
The marchers were given two minutes to disperse. After a minute and five seconds, the phalanx of troopers and vigilantes advanced. "I saw them as we marched across the bridge, some with gas masks on, clubs and cattle prods in their hands, some on horses," Boynton Robinson told The Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP, in 2005. "They came from the right, the left, the front and started beating people."
A trooper struck her on the shoulder with a billy club, she recalled. "I gave him a dirty look, and the second time I was hit at the base of my neck. I fell unconscious."
A photographer captured the incident as a fellow marcher comforted Boynton Robinson, who was 53 at the time. Another marcher on the front line was John Lewis, now a Democratic congressman from Georgia. Before going to the hospital with a fractured skull, he said, "I don't see how President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam; I don't see how he can send troops to the Congo; I don't see how he can send troops to Africa and can't send troops to Selma, Alabama."
Sheriff Clark told his officers not to offer any assistance to the nearly 70 marchers who were injured. As for Boynton Robinson, he said, "Let the buzzards eat her." She was rescued by other marchers and taken to a segregated hospital.
Throughout the US, people were appalled. Two weeks later, King led another march from Selma to Montgomery. "How long will justice be crucified and truth buried?" he said at the march's end. "How long? Not long. Because no lie can live forever." Within months, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. When President Johnson signed the bill at the White House, Boynton Robinson was a guest.
Amelia Isadora Platts was born in 1911, in Savannah, Georgia; her father was a builder. While still in her teens, she graduated from the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. In 1936 she wrote a play, Through the Years, about a former slave who won election to Congress during Reconstruction, based on the life of her father's half-brother, Robert Smalls.
Her son Bruce Boynton, a Howard University-trained lawyer, was arrested in 1958 at a whites-only lunch counter in a Richmond bus station. His case, Boynton v Virginia, was taken up by the lawyer and future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. In 1960, the US Supreme Court ruled that interstate travel facilities should be desegregated.
Boynton Robinson settled in Tuskegee in 1976 and later became a vice president of the Schiller Institute, an organisation affiliated with political extremist and fringe presidential candidate Lyndon R LaRouche. She said she was drawn to his ideas for economic revival. LaRouche went to prison after being convicted of mail fraud in the 1980s.
In 2007, Boynton Robinson attended the funeral of Clark, her one-time nemesis, who had died unrepentant. "He was supposed to have been so popular, but there were only 80 people at his funeral," she said. "I was brought up by people who loved others. We had no animosity. We had no feeling that we hate anyone."
Amelia Isadora Platts, civil rights activist: born Savannah, Georgia 18 August 1911; married 1936 Samuel Boynton (died 1963; one son, and one son deceased), 1969 Bob Billups (died 1973), thirdly James Robinson (died 1988); died Montgomery, Alabama 26 August 2015.
© The Washington PostReuse content