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To many of his peers, Lawrence Guyot was an “unsung hero of the Civil Rights movement.” He died Friday at the age of 73. He was an original member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and director of the 1964 Freedom Summer in Mississippi, enduring jail and violence to mobilize black voters. But Guyot was also deeply invested in local activism in Washington, DC. We explore his life and legacy.
- Eleanor Holmes Norton Delegate, U.S. House of Representatives (D-DC)
- Julian Bond Co-Founder, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); Former Chairman of the Board, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Professor, American University and the University of Virginia;
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, state of the labor union from protests at Wal-Mart to showdowns over the future of Twinkies, but first, we remember an activist whose lifeworks span from the civil rights movement in the Deep South to local debates about the future of Columbia Heights. Lawrence Guyot died on Friday at the age of 73. Like some famous stars, he was identified with just one name: Guyot.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut no entertainer or sports figure, he -- Guyot was Guyot because of his relentless pursuit of justice and his relentless pursuit of just about anything that interested him. It was the Guyot way. So when yours truly was working in Drum and Spear Bookstore in Washington in 1971 and Courtland Cox, one of his old SNCC colleagues who was managing the store informed me in passing that one Guyot would be coming by the store today, it was the first time I'd heard that name. It sure would not be the last, but it was years before I even knew that his first name was Lawrence.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe came by the bookstore a lot, as did his wife, Monica, always pushing a stroller. That trio became familiar figures to Ivy Young who worked in the store and now manages the a capella group Sweet Honey and the Rock, and to me. That's how we got to know Guyot after he first arrived here. We would learn later that Lawrence Guyot was born in Pass Christian, Miss., that he was one of the original members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, enduring jail and appalling violence at the hands of police while registering black voters.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe was founding chairman of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party which upended the 1964 Democratic National Convention by demanding that black delegates be seated. But he was also a local activist coming to D.C. in the early 1970s, working in local government and serving as a neighborhood advisory commissioner in Ward 1.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to have a conversation remembering Lawrence Guyot by phone is Eleanor Holmes Norton, delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives. She was an organizer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee as a law student. She traveled to the Deep South to participate in the Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964 where she first met Guyot. Congresswoman Norton, thank you for joining us.
REP. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTONOh, good afternoon, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlso joining us by phone is Julian Bond, co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, former chair of the board of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, NAACP, and now a professor at American University and the University of Virginia. He also joins us by phone. Julian, thank you so much for joining us.
PROF. JULIAN BONDMy great pleasure.
NNAMDIEleanor, I'll start with you. I knew Guyot for years, but reading his different obituaries over the weekend, it was far too easy for me and others to overlook just how much he really did. You called him an unsung hero of the civil rights movement. What did you mean by that?
NORTONWhat I mean -- what I meant, Kojo, was that Guyot played a singular role in Mississippi. I went to Mississippi in '63 at a time when this was, for all intents and purposes, a no man's land. It had no native civil rights movement as such. The head of the NAACP was murdered while I was there, had led the sit-ins in Jackson. Now, when you get -- got into the delta where I first met Guyot, there were literally when I got there a handful of very young people, and these people were at risk of their lives every single day because it must be remembered that Mississippi was a place apart.
NORTONSNCC had successfully organized and by that time had many successes in the Deep South, but Mississippi was -- I think it is fair to say it was a place where racist terror was unchallenged, and it was in this atmosphere that a handful of young people and the SNCC office was led by another storied civil rights leader, Robert Moses, preceded to try to organize the Freedom Summer in '63 and to ultimately organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
NNAMDIIndeed, Robert Moses has been a guest on this program on a few occasions. If you'd like to join the conversation, if you have memories of Lawrence Guyot of your own, you can call us at 800-433-8850 or send email to email@example.com. Julian Bond, for a lot of people outside the movement, Guyot may not be a household name, but he was an inspiration for people around him, especially his apparent willingness to take incredible risks. And a lot of those people around him for whom he was an inspiration do have very well-known names, like Fannie Lou Hamer.
BONDIndeed. Guyot is one of those figures who played a major, major role, probably among the most important people in creating and sustaining a movement in Mississippi. And sad that his name is not that well-known because he's -- was and will be always remembered as a tremendous figure, a man of great power.
BONDI always see him in my mind's eye with pointing his finger at somebody and saying, "You, you, you. Yes, you," and taking that person to task because they'd not done something he thought they should have done to advance the fortunes of the movement. He's just a wonderful guy.
NNAMDICongresswoman Norton, Lawrence Guyot was born in Pass Christian, Miss., and, as you pointed out, as a college student, he soon became involved in the very dangerous work of mobilizing black voters in the Deep South. Can you give us a sense of how dangerous that work was? You apparently met him after his famous beating at Winona jail.
NORTONWell, I met him in the arms of danger when I arrived in Greenwood with -- literally, I mean, teenagers were there, and I said, "Who is in charge here?" And they said Lawrence Guyot is. But he's gone to get Ms. Hamer out of jail, and he got put in jail, too. And here am I, a second-year law student, have to figure out what to do next since nobody was in charge because they're only kids, really, and kids from SNCC who -- and those were very young kids in the movement.
NORTONWhen I questioned them, you know, in my lawyer-like fashion as I was a budding lawyer about Winona, Miss., where Guyot was being held, about who I could talk to, they told me that the police chief in Greenwood was not entirely decent. But at least he didn't lead the White Citizens' Council who circulated around the office every other evening. So he was considered decent by Mississippi standards, so I went to see the man.
NORTONI said, "My name is Eleanor Catherine Holmes. I'm a student at Yale Law School. They have Ms. Fannie Lou Hamer in jail unconstitutionally. She was using Interstate Commerce and got off the bus to use the lavatory. They have put in jail the man who went to get her, and I am all that's left. And I just got here, and I have called everybody from Washington, D.C."
NNAMDIMm, mm, mm.
NORTON"And I called everybody in Washington, D.C., everybody at Yale Law School and told them watch out. So I'm asking you to do me one favor: Would you call the Winona, Miss. people and tell them I'm coming and tell them I mean to do nothing but try to set the stage for getting him out of jail." I did not know that he had been anything but incarcerated.
NORTONWhen I walked into the jail and asked to see him -- and clearly the police chief had called ahead that nobody try to arrest me for coming to ask about Ms. Hamer and about Guyot -- they said to me, "Just a moment. We'll have to wait a moment." Guyot had been beat so badly that he had no clothes on, and they had to wait until he put something around him so that he could come out and talk to me. He had no clothes on because clothes hurt. His wounds were so deep.
NNAMDIJulian Bond, one of -- another interesting and scary anecdote from Guyot's time during the Freedom Summer when he was a field secretary for SNCC, he was working with three activists named Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney who disappeared in the town of Philadelphia, Miss., whose bodies were found 40 days after they disappeared. And from what I've been reading, Guyot almost got into the car with them on that fateful day.
BONDYes. The lore within the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee is Guyot was slated to go with them and at the last minute or so decided not to go, and who's to say that he would not have ended up in that grave in Mississippi, in Philadelphia, Miss. had he gone with them. He surely would have, but that was the kind of guy he was. He would go anywhere. He would do anything. He would take any risk.
BONDHe was just a brave, brave soul and a wonderful soul, and we're going to miss him a great, great deal. And D.C. will miss him because here he was a tremendous activist in neighborhood politics. I think people here may know him from that better than they know him from his Mississippi exploits.
NNAMDIIndeed, a lot of people in D.C. know Lawrence Guyot fighting for voting rights and for economic justice in D.C. We interviewed him back in 2008 on the 40th year of the riots in D.C., and like only Guyot could, he made a relationship between the riots of '68 and the need for local control to make development happen in Columbia Heights today. Here he is.
MR. LAWRENCE GUYOTOne of the things we have to understand, there's an immediate relationship throughout America with powerlessness and riots. People do not wake up in the morning and say, "Today is a good day to riot." It's a continuation of powerlessness, and there's -- in Watts, it was a traffic stop. Here, it was the killing of Martin Luther King. But what it took to rebuild Washington was a concentrated group of people, like the Columbia Heights Development Corp., Leroy Hubbard, who's recently passed, Bob Moore.
MR. LAWRENCE GUYOTAnd what we had to do was fashion a relationship that got us through the control board and beyond it because what we really saw was how effective the absence of local control could be negatively on both economic development and political empowerment.
NNAMDIAnd if you know anything about Guyot, you know that we had to edit that down. The statement was really about four minutes long.
NNAMDIBut, Julian Bond, bringing us up to the present, earlier this month, voters in Maryland approved a referendum legalizing gay marriage, an initiative that you supported publicly. Guyot was also a public supporter of gay marriage when it was debated in Washington, D.C. a few years ago. I bring this up because some people who came up in the 1960s didn't and don't support gay rights. And they bristle at the comparison between the fight for black equality and the fight for gay rights. What say you?
BONDWell, it's true that there are some people who are resentful of the idea that gay rights and black rights ought to be talked about in the same breadth that the people who mistakenly believe that being gay is a choice. Of course, nobody believes that but people who know nothing about science, who know nothing about the human psyche. But some people do believe that and believe that you could choose to be gay and you cannot, of course, choose to be black, and therefore these things are not the same.
BONDOf course, they're exactly the same. You're born with your sexual orientation as you're born with your race. You can't choose either one. But, anyway, some people foolishly believe that, and, luckily, they did not prevail when this was voted upon in our neighboring state of Maryland.
NNAMDIAnd Guyot made the point that when he married Monica there were states in the Union in which that marriage was considered illegal. Eleanor Holmes Norton, during the 1964 Democratic National Convention, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party made a very public play to try and seat black delegates from that state. It was a ploy that ultimately failed, but it was seen as a turning point of sorts for opening up space for black people within the Democratic Party space that people like you now occupy.
NORTONWell, absolutely. It opened up the Democratic Party, and I think it even opened up the Republican Party in a sense that the whole notion of excluding people from participating in your national convention simply was not kosher after 1964. And what Guyot and Fannie Lou Hamer and the organizers of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party did was to go to the meetings where people were elected to put themselves forward, except they were excluded from meetings.
NORTONBecause they were excluded totally from the meetings, they did something really quite extraordinary. They organized themselves into a functional equivalent of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and took an entire integrated delegation to Mississippi. We had written the brief and run the lobbying operation, and while they were -- and, of course, Mrs. Hamer's speech is considered the tour de force of the '64 convention. We were offered two seats. The delegation turned them down. The delegation quickly won.
NORTONThe Democratic Party reversed itself for the next convention and began to not only integrate but to make sure that every group of voters within the Democratic Party was included. And four years later, Guyot had credentials...
NORTON...as a member of the official delegation of the state of Mississippi. In four years, he had won what most people in a movement take many more years to do…
NNAMDIAnd it changed...
NORTON...very imaginative or organizing. And he brought that same spirit of organizing to our own efforts here in the District of Columbia across the board.
NNAMDIHere with a memory is Harold in Washington. Harold, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
HAROLDThis is just a great remembrance. I was working in a movement in Alabama, and I came across to Mississippi for something. I was sitting in a meeting with a whole lot of folks from Mississippi who had very little education, and Lawrence Guyot was speaking to them. And he was (unintelligible) reason to their oppression. It hit me (unintelligible).
HAROLDHe had broken that down in such a way that anybody could understand (unintelligible), and anybody could understand the reason for oppression. He was a very, very special person, and I'm privileged to have heard him.
NNAMDIHarold, thank you very much for sharing that memory. And finally, there's this. We got an email from Rachael Feldman of Operation Understanding DC, who said, "Guyot was Operation Understanding DC's most enthusiastic speaker each year at our students' annual civil rights retreat. He never missed an opportunity to challenge, enlighten and educate the young leaders who follow in his substantial activist footsteps. They and we proudly carry forward this mission of equality.
NNAMDI"We will be presenting our OUDC award for community service posthumously to Guyot next week at our annual event. We are sorry he will not be there in body to join us in celebrating his remarkable life. But know he will be there spirit, encouraging us to keep pushing for justice."
NNAMDIOperation Understanding, of course, tries to create greater understanding between people of various ethnic groups and between Jews and African-Americans, in particular. It finally says, "Rest in peace, warrior Guyot. We will continue the struggle in your honor," which I think we all feel is appropriate. Julian Bond, thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIJulian Bond is a co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and former chairman of the board of the NAACP. He is a professor at American University and the University of Virginia. Congresswoman Norton, thank you for joining us.
NORTONOf course. Glad to do it.
NNAMDIEleanor Holmes Norton is a delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives, representing the District of Columbia. She was an organizer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, state of the labor union from protests at Wal-Mart to showdowns over the future of Twinkies. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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