At 103, Dr. Amelia Boynton Robinson may be physically limited and confined to a wheelchair, but her spirit, inspiration and memories are as fresh and rewarding as they were during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, when her legend was born. For almost an hour last Sunday at the United Palace House of Inspiration in Washington Heights, Robinson regaled an attentive audience with stories about the brutal experiences she endured when she was among those mercilessly attacked during the Selma to Montgomery March in Alabama in 1965.
Several members absorbed in her recounting of those days had seen the film “Selma” and how marvelously Lorraine Toussaint had portrayed Robinson, but to hear those moments retold by the woman who had survived the blows and to see actual film footage and stills projected on the screen behind her, the incidents conveyed a more powerful reality.
After the church’s spiritual director Xavier Eikerenkoetter, the son of the famous Rev. Ike, asked her to recall the march and “Bloody Sunday.” She began telling how she and others were beaten by the state troopers. “As I stepped aside from the trooper’s club, I felt a blow on my neck and my arm,” she said. “It could have injured me permanently if it had landed on my head. Another blow by a trooper as I was gasping for breath knocked me to the ground, and there I lay unconscious.”
She continued, “One of them shot tear gas over me, but the plastic rain cap saved my life because it had slipped down over my face and protected me from the worse fumes. One of the troopers said, ‘She’s dead.’ And they were told to drag me to the side of the road.” While she recounted the terrible scene, photos of it flashed on the screen, as well as stills from the documentary “Eyes on the Prize.”
In one of the photos, Robinson is seen sprawled on the ground and in the arms of a young man who had come to her rescue.“The cry went out for ambulances to come over the [Edmund Pettus] bridge and pick up the wounded and those thought to be dead,” she said, “but Sheriff [Jim] Clark dared them to cross the bridge … ‘I’m not going to call any ambulance for anybody! Let the buzzards eat ’em!’”
But he finally relented, she said, after he was told that there may be a bloody retaliation and that he might be the first one. “I was told later that I was taken to the church after being given first aid on the way, but when I didn’t respond, I was taken to the Good Samaritan Hospital,” she explained. “When I regained consciousness, I wondered where I was, but then I remembered the voice through the bullhorn, the gas being shot, and then the men with gas masks.”
It took several years for her to fully recover from a beating that almost killed her. Her once melodious voice was damaged by the gas, a voice that is no less commanding and urgent nowadays.
Eikerenkoetter asked her about hatred, Clark and why she attended his funeral in 2007. “First of all, you can’t be happy and have hate,” she answered. “I went to Jim Clark’s funeral with two other friends, and we were the only Blacks there. I wanted to prove to the people that I have no malice.” It was her religious background that informed her that Clark was one of God’s children and was not responsible for the hate in his heart.
“God’s love is the answer,” she repeated several times before demanding that all the young people 18 and older register and vote, something to which she has devoted much of her remarkable life. “A voteless people is a hopeless people!” she declared.
Eikerenkoetter and his associates, including a stage full of talented musicians, as they had done from the beginning of the ceremony, celebrated her with song. There were also proclamations from several political leaders, including one from Mayor Bill de Blasio that cited Robinson’s tireless efforts and sacrifices for freedom and equality.
The long line of people invited to the stage to share a moment and a photograph with Robinson was indicative of the love she extended. Her additional blessings are readily available in her autobiography, “Bridge Across Jordan,” published by the Schiller Institute, a book that Coretta Scott King believed was “an important contribution to the history of the Black freedom struggle.”