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Civil Rights Icon Lawrence Guyot Dies

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By Barrington Salmon
Special to the NNPA from The Washington Informer

For the many years he lived in the District of Columbia, Lawrence Guyot could be counted on to be at the forefront of any issue that involved equality, justice and fair play.

The tall, husky, barrel-chested Mississippi native marched, agitated, confronted, and instigated for change. He was a common presence at D.C. Council meetings, challenging those he felt ignored or overlooked the needs of the poor and the vulnerable. And he served as an advisory neighborhood commissioner seeking to change from the inside as well as outside.

On Friday, Nov. 23, Guyot’s large heart, that embraced every righteous cause, was stilled. He died at age 73 after a long illness.

“I regard him as one of the real unsung heroes of the Civil Rights movement,” said Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, who had known her friend, community activist and lawyer for 50 years. “Most of those who were as badly beaten as him didn’t live to tell it much less live a life of struggle. He was much respected for carrying on many different struggles in this town. He didn’t confine himself. He knew injustice when he saw it because he had seen it at its worst.”

Norton, 75, said she first met Guyot when he, famed Civil Rights Campaigner Fannie Lou Hamer and 14-year-old June Johnson were imprisoned in Winona, Miss., for registering black people to vote at a time when racist elements in the state and other parts of the South resorted to murder, intimidation and violence to ensure that blacks there would never have the opportunity to exercise their constitutional rights.

“I first met him when I was a law student in Mississippi, went to Greenwood, Miss., and was told that he’d been put in jail in Winona. I went there to try to get him out of jail,” Norton recalled. “They let him out of jail to allow him to be beaten by the White Citizens’ Councils. When you meet someone under those circumstances, you form a lasting bond. At that time there was almost no Civil Rights movement in Mississippi. It had spread throughout the South and the last place to go was Mississippi.”

“There was terrorist violence for anyone who threatened the regime – from the courts to the police to all parts of the community.”

Local political consultant, political analyst and commentator Chuck Thies said Guyot was a unique man and activist.

“He is an irreplaceable force in the District. I am saddened by his death,” said Thies, 47. “He was a civil rights warrior who used his background in D.C. politics. Lawrence was different from the civil rights leaders of that era who are still around today. He was jailed and beaten and risked his life for the cause of civil rights. Don’t get me wrong, people like Eleanor Holmes Norton, Marion Barry and Ivanhoe Donaldson were courageous, but Lawrence did not use his civil rights background as a way for upward mobility.”

Thies detailed just a small snapshot of Guyot’s activities in the city.

“In 2003, he worked with whites to have the District as the first Democratic primary in the 2004 presidential race. He legitimized the effort in the D.C. civil rights and black community. In 2004, at a discussion of a Ken Burns film, he said that D.C. is racially divided and the only thing that is bringing the people of the city together is Howard Dean and Kwame Brown. That is a classic Guyotism.”

Longtime Civil Rights Activist Dorie Ann Ladner said it will be hard not to be able to call Guyot every day to discuss politics and to get updates on scuttlebutt and the latest political information percolating not just in the city but nationwide.

“It really will be hard to not have those discussions. He was a fearless warrior in civil rights, housing, jobs, and justice,” said Ladner, who met Guyot as a teenager in 1961. “He was a political animal. I’d call him every day and ask what was on the agenda.”

Ladner said her friend was “always there advocating for the poor and downtrodden.”

“He supported group homes in D.C. neighborhoods when a lot of people were opposed to them,” said Ladner, 70. “We fell out when he supported [former Mayor Adrian] Fenty. I chased him across Turkey Thicket. He got up and started trotting and I was on a crutch after him. I told [Kwame] Brown I was looking for him.”

“And when he supported Carol Schwartz, I got up and gave him a piece of my mind and after that, I gave him a ride home. Our core beliefs were the same. That is where we were joined at the hip. You couldn’t separate us.”

Ladner said she met Guyot at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Miss., in 1961 when she was a sophomore and he was an upperclassman. She said she and her sister Joyce became involved with Freedom Riders “in the body of Diane Nash, James Bevel, Paul Brooks, and Marion Barry, who remained in Mississippi around the right to vote.”

“When I met them, it was like Hallelujah. We wanted to get involved and those few of us went into Jackson to talk … about our rights,” said Ladner. “I asked Guyot if he wanted to go with us. We lived about 10 miles from the city limits. It was something he liked and he stayed with it.”

Ladner said Guyot wasn’t on the staff of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) but both of them worked with SNCC Project Director Bob Moses and others from the Congress of Racial Equality to register disenfranchised black voters and to integrate public accommodations.

Ladner was a founding member of the Council of Federal Organizations in Clarkesdale, Miss., an umbrella organization which included Civil Rights martyr Medgar Evers, SNCC, the NAACP, Congress on Racial Equality and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

“We launched ‘Freedom Summer’ and in the summer of ’61, ’62, I went home and told my mother I was going back to Jackson to get my freedom,” she said.

Ladner said Guyot paid an awful price for his fight for freedom and equality.

“He was in Parchment Prison at least two times that I know of,” she said. “In Greenwood, he looked like one of the Somali refugees. He’d lost 100 pounds and had his head shaved. They turned on the heat at night, tortured them. Once, they had to jump out of a window in Greenwood. I often joked with him about how he got out the window because he was always robust, but he said ‘you gotta do what you gotta do…’”

In 1962, Guyot began work with SNCC and two years later was named director of the Freedom Summer Project in Hattiesburg, Miss. He was also the founding chairman of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which sought to include African Americans in the Democratic Party’s Mississippi delegation.

“He became the chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and went to Atlantic City in 1964 and challenged the seating of an all-white delegation. We had taken Miss Hamer from the cotton fields to Atlantic City.”

When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1965, Ladner said she, Guyot and other Civil Rights pioneers had already been in the trenches fighting for these rights for years. And in later years, she said, Guyot always expressed concern that the act was constantly under threat.

Guyot said as much last year after watching PBS’ screening of ‘Freedom Riders’ at the Newseum with several hundred viewers.

After the show, at a watering hole in downtown Washington, Guyot was his usual boisterous, funny self as he explained in detail the ways that blacks and their allies needed to protect this cherished right.

He also recounted his days as a soldier on the forefront of the civil rights struggle, tying those struggles with D.C.’s statehood push and the scandals embroiling council members.

“I find this absolutely astounding,” Guyot said during an interview earlier this year. “If you’re going to do a criminal investigation, it’s good to start with a crime that has been committed. This is not a serious investigation; its intent is to inhibit this government’s operations,” Guyot said about the federal investigation into businessman Jeffrey Thompson’s involvement in political donations to elected officials. “It is an issue framed as if it’s only about purity. We should have as much concern for having a functioning government as a pure government.”

“I don’t want this government stymied by discussions of who’s the purest in the group. When I go to the polls, I go to elect politicians, not saints.”

Ladner said Guyot was an unabashed supporter of President Barack Obama. She said he went to North Carolina and elsewhere in 2008 to campaign for him and although he was unable to travel this year, he worked the phones. She and others who knew Guyot said he was a die-hard Democrat and predicted Obama’s victory on Nov. 6.

Local journalist Adrienne Washington said she is stunned by her friend’s passing.

“He said he was the president of my fan club,” said the former Washington Times columnist and writer. “He would come and lecture in my classes and talked a lot about the Civil Rights movement. He always repeated the quote about race relations: there was the USA, the South and then there was Mississippi.”

“He registered Fannie Lou Hamer to vote. He was beaten almost half to death for registering people to vote and he was very involved in the Mississippi Teaching Project – making civil rights relevant to children today.”

“It used to bother me that people thought he was stuck in the ’60s but they didn’t understand him. It was always a springboard to tie it to current issues. And he wasn’t as predictable as you would think. He supported Fenty. He never got his due. He should be up there with Hamer, [Ella] Baker and King. There’s a bunch of unsung heroes and soldiers. He was at the top of that list. He really cared about D.C. and poor people. He wore those people out at the city council.”

WI Staff Writer James Wright contributed to this story.

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