Amelia Boynton Robinson, 104: Fought for voting rights

Amelia Boynton Robinson became a symbol of Southern repression and discrimination when she and other marchers were beaten and tear-gassed on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965.

Boynton Robinson, often called the matriarch of the voting rights movement, died Wednesday at the age of 104 after suffering a massive stroke. She lived in Tuskegee, Ala.

During the attack on what is known as “Bloody Sunday,” Boynton Robinson was knocked unconscious. Tear gas seared her esophagus, damaging her voice.

“It could have killed me,” she said during an interview years later. “It made me more determined to do everything I could to make African-Americans first-class citizens and to destroy the fear that is in our people.”

Images of her and other bloodied and beaten marchers shocked the nation and led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

She was invited to the White House for President Lyndon B. Johnson’s signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. A monument in her honor stands at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

In January, Boynton Robinson was a guest at President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address. She was nominated for the 2015 Presidential Medal of Freedom in March, the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday.

Frail but resolute, she was among the thousands who descended on Selma last March for the commemorative events. In a wheelchair, she clasped hands with President Obama and other civil rights veterans for a ceremonial bridge crossing.

“She was an amazing woman who had great vision and great courage and great strength,” said Alabama state Sen. Hank Sanders, who worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to register voters and joined the subsequent march to Montgomery after Bloody Sunday. “She was doing all those things during an age when women were supposed to take a back seat, but she took whatever seat was necessary to help lift an oppressed people.”

Boynton Robinson’s political activism began in childhood.

She was born on Aug. 18, 1911, in Savannah, one of 10 children born to George and Anna Platts. Her father was a building contractor. Her mother was a voting rights activist.

At age 9, Boynton Robinson accompanied her mother in a horse and buggy to distribute leaflets for the Women’s Suffrage Movement.

She attended Georgia State Industrial College for Colored Youth (now Savannah State University) for two years, and graduated from Tuskegee Normal & Industrial Institute (now Tuskegee University) with a home economics degree in 1927.

After a teaching stint in Georgia, she moved to Selma to work as a Dallas County home demonstration agent with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In 1930, she met Samuel Boynton, a co-worker who shared her passion for social justice. During home visits to discuss home economics and crops, they talked to rural black residents about voting and land ownership.

Boynton Robinson registered to vote in 1932 at the age of 21. The following year, she co-founded the Dallas County Voters League.

In 1936, she married Boynton, and the two spent three decades fighting for voting and property ownership rights for black residents. After her husband’s death in 1963, she continued their work.

She invited members of the SNCC to Selma in 1963, said Bernard LaFayette, who went there to start a voter-registration campaign for SNCC.

“She clearly was the person who kept the Dallas County Voters League going,” said LaFayette, now board chairman of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and director of the Emory Center for the Advancement of Nonviolence. “She was the leader of the ‘Courageous Eight’ (local Selma activists).”

The following year, she became the first African-American woman and first female Democratic candidate to run for U.S. Congress in Alabama. She received 11 percent of the primary vote in an area where only 5 percent of African-Americans could vote.

Also in 1964, she invited King and the SCLC to Selma, and the leaders often planned strategy in her home and offices. She helped organize the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march. The next year, she joined the 600 marchers on Bloody Sunday.

“She had that courage and determination,” LaFayette said. “She had a passion for justice. She was not afraid.”

Boynton Robinson remarried in 1969 to musician Bob W. Billups, who died in a boating accident four years later. She later married former Tuskegee classmate James Robinson and moved back to Tuskegee. He died in 1988.

Throughout her life, Boynton Robinson remained active in civil and human rights causes.

In 1990, Boynton Robinson received the Martin Luther King Jr. Medal of Freedom.

In 2007, she attended the funeral of Jim Clark, the former Dallas County sheriff who ordered officers to beat her.

“Amelia Boynton was fearless in the face of brutal injustice, willing to risk all she had on the front lines of change in America,” said Congressman John Lewis in a statement Wednesday. “She will be deeply missed, but her legacy and her contribution will be remembered always.”

As vice chairwoman of the human rights group Schiller Institute, she toured to speak out against injustice until her retirement in 2009.

Actress Lorraine Toussaint portrayed her in the movie “Selma,” released in 2014.

“The amazing thing is a lot of people participated in the civil rights movement and then they stopped,” Sanders said. “But she started before the civil rights movement and continued during the civil rights movement and after the civil rights movement. We’re talking about 90 years of being on the battlefield for voting rights, civil rights and human rights.”

Boynton Robinson’s body will lie in state on Sept. 5 at First Baptist Church in Selma and on Sept. 6 at Tuskegee University, said her son Bruce Boynton of Selma. Her body will be cremated, and a ceremony featuring some of her favorite old-time gospel songs will be held on Sept. 8 on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, her son said.

In addition to her son, Boynton Robinson is survived by Germaine Bowser of Philadelphia, Pa., and Sharon Seay of Selma, two nieces who she raised as her daughters; and nine grandchildren.

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