by C. Richard Cox
The recent death of Mrs. Amelia Boynton, 104, in Selma, Ala., marks the end of an era of grassroots leadership for civil rights. Her passing struck a deep personal note.
Fifty years ago, I took leave of my post as an associate minister in a Harlem Methodist church and flew to Alabama to participate in voting registration drives in the city of Selma. Previously, I had volunteered in Birmingham, where I met Andrew Young.
He encouraged me while in Selma to concentrate on engaging the white community to mitigate the reprisals on black citizens for taking part in voting rights activities. He said I could find a place to stay with Mrs. Boynton, and so began my two month stay on a cot on her enclosed porch.
Five other cots lined that space, and those were filled by a rotating cast of volunteers of both races. Inside, activists Jim Bevel and Diane Nash resided on the second floor with their young children.
But Amelia Boynton was not running a boarding house for activists: She was a strategist of the first rank and a woman of determination, persistence and tremendous courage. We went elsewhere for our meals and laundry — we went to Amelia for advice and guidance.
Boynton knew her city; she knew every political, business, church and school leader who was approachable, and she knew which ones to avoid. With her suggestions, I was able to arrange meetings with white leaders for one-on-one, heartfelt discussions of the inequities faced by the black population. I spent a busy two months, up early to transport people from the outlying areas to meetings in the city, a day of conversations and soul searching with my appointments, followed by evening mass meetings that were equal part revival and politics. That cot looked good at the end of those long days.
I particularly remember one conversation with a minister who said he felt impotent in the face of local opinion: He was denied the keys to his own church because his congregants distrusted his sympathetic views. Another minister had been forbidden by his church council from even speaking to me because it was known that I wanted to address the challenge to the integrity of the Gospel and our Constitution by the denial of voting rights.
At that time, two of the five counties around Selma had NO registered black voters. Selma’s Dallas County had 320 registered out of 32,687 eligible black residents. Most of those could be attributed to the efforts of Amelia and her husband, both graduates of Tuskegee and employees of the county (In 1940, Boynton’s husband had been fired for his participation in voting registration efforts).
Mrs. Boynton navigated the uncertain waters of a city where the White Citizens’ Council and Ku Klux Klan were founded. She also was active in trying to keep the balance of power from causing disruption between the youthful black political activists of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), who had been laboring for over a year in Selma, and the newcomers from out of town, the Southern Christian Leadership Council.
The repercussions of that mix ushered in the change of SNCC leadership from John Lewis to Julian Bond. The efforts of these groups did convince Martin Luther King to accept the invitation of Mrs. Boynton and the Dallas County Voters League to add his presence to the Selma actions.
Amelia did not confine her activities to back-room strategy sessions – she was also on the frontlines. Most prominently, she marched on the Edmund Pettus Bridge with John Lewis, where they were both attacked and severely injured on Bloody Sunday. I had been called back to my New York appointment by my senior pastor only days before that march and watched with horror as the events unfolded.
My admiration for her activities and esteem for her character never wavered. Just a few months ago we spoke warmly on the telephone, recounting my arrival at her doorstep 50 years ago and my more recent visit in 1999 when I led a Civil Rights History Tour attended by First United Methodist Church of Germantown members and others. I was also fortunate to connect with her when she relocated to Tuskegee, where I visited the university in my position as vice president of programs for the William Penn Foundation.
It is a shameful irony that the rights that Mrs. Boynton fought for and that Jimmie Lee Jackson, Rev. James Reeb, Rev. Jonathan Daniels, and Viola Liuzzo gave their lives for were challenged in 2013 in a case, Shelby v. Holder, that originated in her home state of Alabama.
We must continue to work to uphold the one person, one vote ideal and not allow our country to backslide on hard-won principles. We owe it to the legacy of Amelia Boynton.
The Rev. C. Richard Cox is retired United Methodist minister who lives in Wyndmoor.