One on one with civil rights pioneer

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 6, 2007

The Selma Times-Journal

Amelia Boynton Robinson sat patiently in the lobby of the St. James Hotel Sunday afternoon, waiting for the next event she was expected to attend. It had to be a long day for her – it was for pretty much everyone else and Robinson is 95 years old.

She was recognized in virtually every speech made Sunday, including those by presidential candidates U.S. Sens. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton.

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One of the leaders of the civil rights movement, Robinson said she always knew she’d see the day when a person of color had a good chance at becoming president.

“Yes, I believed it would happen. I think the eyes of people are open now,” she said.

“The American people are concerned,” she said. “They realize if we don’t get together and fight for justice, we will lose this country.”

She acknowledged having two favorite candidates in the race, but said she feels sorry for whoever is elected.

“They will inherit such a mess. They will inherit an indebtedness it will take several years and many, many generations to straighten out,” she said.

While she didn’t say whether she believed Clinton or Obama would make the better president, her real desire would be to see them both on the same ticket.

“If I could get people to understand that it would be a beautiful thing and the thing we have been fighting for – communication and integration,” she said.

The road to activism

Robinson said she has always voted – since registering in 1933 at the age of 21. “Back then, you had to be 21,” she said.

She and her husband, S.W. Boynton – both from Georgia – worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture after moving to Selma. “Both of us realized it was important to be free,” she said.

The plantations and farms in the area were the “same ones put up for people who came from Africa,” she said.

But many farmers at the time didn’t realize what their labor was worth. They would work a farm, but when it came time to sell the crop – most often cotton – money would be taken out of the price for items such as plows, mules, seed, doctor visits or Christmas presents for the children.

The farmer would end up owing money instead of being paid for their produce. Then they would have to borrow money again and the cycle would continue, Robinson said.

“They were trying to mentally destroy people on the farm,” she said. “We thought ‘this will never do.’ My husband said, ‘I’m going to try to help people get off the farm.'”

Soon their crusade turned to voting rights.

“You are not a first class citizen until you have the right to vote,” she said. “We had meetings by candlelight because there was no electricity. The system didn’t like it. They said, ‘What do you think we are going to do when you take them off the farm?'”

The Boyntons began to be threatened, by phone at first, then with physical violence. “My husband was so strong, he gave me strength,” she said.

But, S.W. Boynton had strokes because of the stress, she said. “One day, George Tate came to his office with a loaded stick,” she said, explaining that a loaded stick had metal on the end.

When Tate took a swing at her husband, she intervened. Though neither was seriously injured by the incident, “my husband went to the hospital for the last time,” she said.

By many accounts, it was S.W. Boynton’s death in 1963 that rallied the community and started a larger movement.

A young man from Nashville asked the pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church if a memorial could be held for Boynton. Although pastor L.L. Anderson was in favor of the memorial, the deacons had concerns about the repercussions, Robinson said.

“In the meantime, Jim Clark called for all the men to come to the courthouse and be sworn in,” she said.

When the mourners came to the church for the memorial, “they had to come through those lines of deputized sheriffs,” Robinson said.

Then, on Monday morning when they went to work, many were fired because of their attendance, she said.

“People began to realize they were definitely enslaved mentally,” she said. “Then Selma people joined the march. Wherever there is unity, there is strength.”

Although the early civil rights movement had been made up mostly by youth up to that time, when “we got ready to cross the bridge, we had adults as well as young people,” she said. “Sometimes death brings fruit. I think his death brought that.”

The Voting Rights Act

Many people might be surprised to learn that Robinson is not really happy with the Voting Rights Act, despite all the effort, blood, sweat and tears it took to get it passed in 1965.

“What we fought for were civil rights, including human rights, and we fought for the right to vote,” she said.

But, she said she doesn’t like the way the Voting Rights Act was stated. “The 15th Amendment gave us the right to vote,” she said. “The thing we need to do is follow the Constitution of the United States, then we don’t have to have all those amendments.”

The trouble spot for Robinson is having to renew the Act.

“To say I can vote for five years, or for 25 years. Why should it have to be renewed, like an insurance policy?” she said. “If Congress decides there are other bills that are more important than the Voting Rights Act, we’ll set that aside. That can happen.”

After all, segregation is not dead, she said. “That mentality has been passed down to others and they are fighting feverishly to keep people of color down.”


Robinson does not like the term African-American.

“We have given negroes every kind of name we can,” she said, listing monikers like darkies, negroes, colored, Afro-American and, now, African-American.

“I’m sure I left some out,” she said. “They have run out of labels.”

She asked why others aren’t labeled, such as French-Americans, Italian-Americans, German-Americans or Spanish-Americans.

“If you are going to label everybody, then I will accept it, but don’t label me,” she said. “What does it mean? I am being labeled as being inferior. I will not accept it.”

She said no race is pure, races are mixed. “You have all kinds of blood and all of it is red. I just refused to be labeled.”

If you have to use a term, she prefers “people of color.” But, she adds, “we’re all Americans. Every single one of us is born an American. And every single one of us has to abide by constitutional laws. Every single one of us has to pay taxes.”

The Future

When asked what she thinks about the future, Robinson said, “I have a sense of hope, yet I’m very much concerned … for all Americans,” noting that there are still discrepancies in the way people are treated.

Robinson, who graduated from Tuskegee and knew George Washington Carver, said the education system is in trouble.

“I think about those programs Roosevelt gave us. We are killing those programs,” she said.

In addition, she expressed concern about the fact that new immigrants are being set apart. “As long as we are dividing people, we will be a Third World country,” she said.