The African-American activist Amelia Boynton Robinson (1911–2015) was beaten and nearly killed by an Alabama state trooper in 1965, during the “Bloody Sunday” civil-rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Robinson was a key organizer of the march, and a photograph of her lying unconscious on the ground, with a white officer standing over her with a nightstick, played an important role in galvanizing public support for the civil-rights movement.
After teaching briefly in Georgia, Robinson became a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) educator and agent. Assigned to demonstrate improved nutrition and homemaking techniques in Selma, Alabama, she settled in that city and married fellow USDA worker William “Bill” Boynton, who eventually opened an insurance agency. The Boyntons had two children, Bill Boynton, Jr., and Bruce Carver Boynton. They also raised Amelia's nieces Germaine Bowser and Sharon Seay.
By the late 1920s, when the Boyntons were married, Selma had a reputation for especially severe discrimination against African Americans. With the support of her husband, in 1933 Amelia founded the Dallas County Voters League and worked diligently to register African American voters, despite the city's imposition of onerous requirements intended to suppress black registration. She prevailed, and a year later Amelia Boynton was listed on Selma's voter roles. While on the job, she often used the name A.P. Boynton, avoiding her first name so that white Selma residents would find it difficult to belittle her by using her first name. In 1936, she wrote and staged a play, Through the Years, which was based on the life of a relative and attempted to build community cohesion by depicting the struggles common to blacks in the area. The Boyntons emerged as leaders of the local African-American community, opening their home to traveling civil-rights activists and holding meetings there. In 1954, they met the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., for the first time.
Tragically, in 1963 William Boynton died, and his widow was left to further their efforts on her own. Within a year she had launched a campaign seeking election to the U.S. House of Representatives, in the process stimulating black voter registration and winning 11 percent of the vote. Amelia Boynton also became the first African American to run for Congress from Alabama since the post–civil war Reconstruction era and the first African-American woman ever to have done so. That year, she convened meetings at her home that involved King and other leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). While discussing the potential shape of what became the Voting Rights Act of 1965, they also developed plans for a series of marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, beginning in March of 1965.
On March 7, 1965, a day later known as “Bloody Sunday,” Amelia Boynton joined a group of about 600 other marchers in Selma as they set off across the city's Edmund Pettus Bridge. Among march leaders was John Lewis, later to become a U.S. Representative from Georgia, as well as the Rev. Hosea Williams (King was scheduled to lead further marches along the same route). Boynton, wearing gloves and heels, was near the front of the group, and when Alabama State Police officers attacked with clubs, whips, and tear gas, she suffered the full force of the onslaught: She was hit on the back of her neck and knocked unconscious. Witnessing the violence, someone photographed her lying injured and on the ground, with a white officer standing over her.
Recalling the moment when she regained consciousness on National Public Radio's All Things Considered, Boynton explained that she heard Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark say, “I'm not sending an ambulance over there. If there's anybody there who's dead, let the buzzards eat them.” A fellow marcher picked Boynton up and attempted to guide her out of the crowd; this, too, was photographed. Boynton, along with 16 other marchers, was taken to one of Dallas County's segregated hospitals, where she eventually recovered.
Following her moment of inadvertent celebrity, Boynton settled back into her community. In 1969, she married musician Bob W. Billups and the couple moved briefly to New York City before returning to Selma. After Billups drowned in a boat accident in 1973, she began dating James Robinson, a former classmate and fellow choir member from the Tuskegee Institute. The two ultimately married, but James Robinson died several years later, in 1988.
In later years Robinson was criticized for her long association with fringe politician Lyndon LaRouche, a left-leaning activist and sometime presidential candidate who was convicted of mail fraud in 1988. LaRouche's Schiller Institute republished Robinson's 1979 memoir, Bridge across Jordan, in 1991, and she served as both a board member and vice chairman of his institute. Robinson defended her affiliation with LaRouche by saying that she was interested in his economic ideas and remained involved in the Schiller Institute until retiring in 2009, in her late 90s.
For her prominence in the civil-rights movement, Robinson was honored with several awards, receiving the Martin Luther King, Jr., Foundation Medal of Freedom in 1990 and the National Visionary Leadership Award in 2005. Within Alabama, a portion of U.S. Interstate 80 near Selma was renamed in her honor in 2000. In 2015, President Barack Obama commended her efforts on behalf of African American before the nation during his State of the Union address. On March 7 of that year, the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, she crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge once again, riding in a wheelchair and holding hands with President Obama.
Although historians remained aware of Robinson's role within the civil-rights movement, Ava Du Vernay's 2014 film Selma brought her name before the general public. Played by actress Lorraine Toussaint, Robinson was depicted as a prime mover in persuading to launch the actions of March 1965. This was not her first experience having her story filmed, however; Robinson had been so angered by the 1999 Disney Studios television film Selma, Lord, Selma that she launched a multimillion-dollar defamation suit against both the studio and broadcaster ABC, claiming that the film used African American stereotypes to represent her. In contrast, Robinson strongly praised DuVernay's cinematic version of events.
Robinson remained active well into her 90s, giving speeches about her life and promoting the Schiller Institute's ideas, sometimes traveling to Europe to do so. In 2007, she attended the funeral of Selma Sheriff Jim Clark, the officer who had told emergency workers to ignore fallen marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge and had never renounced his segregationist beliefs. “I was brought up by people who loved others,” she was quoted as saying by Matt Schudel in the Washington Post. “We had no animosity. We had no feeling that we hate anyone.” At age 99, she returned to her hometown of Savannah to address a group of college students and participate in other activities. Five years later, on August 26, 2015, 104-year-old Amelia Boynton Robinson died in Montgomery, Alabama, from the aftereffects of a stroke.
Boynton Robinson, Amelia, Bridge across Jordan: The Story of the Struggle for Civil Rights in Selma, Alabama, Carlton, 1979.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, August 27, 2015, p. B1.
New York Times, August 27, 2015, p. B17.
Washington Post, August 27, 2015.
National Public Radio website, http://www.npr.org/ (August 26, 2015), All Things Considered broadcast.
Savannah Tribune online, http://www.savannahtribune.com/ (February 16, 2011), “Mrs. Amelia Platts Boynton Returns Home to Savannah.”
The History Makers website, http://www.thehistorymakers.com/ (November 30, 2016), “Amelia Boynton Robinson.”❑