Back in June, when Dr. Amelia Boynton Robinson appeared at the United Palace House of Inspiration in Washington Heights, she regaled the audience with historical memories, none more exhilarating than her own legendary place in the Civil Rights Movement. That delightful moment will be cherished by those who witnessed the experience and now millions more will read about her extraordinary life in her obituary. Robinson died last Wednesday, Aug. 26 in Montgomery, Ala. She was 104.
When she appeared at the United Palace, she was in a wheelchair. Her body may have had limited mobility, but her mind was as lucid and nimble as ever. For almost an hour she recounted events that many had seen depicted in the film “Selma.”
“As I stepped aside from the troopers’ club,” she said, recalling the incident when she was brutally beaten during the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965, “I felt a blow on my neck and my arm. It could have injured me permanently if it had landed on my head. Another blow by a trooper as I was grasping for breath knocked me to the ground, and there I lay unconscious.”
One of the most unforgettable photos from the “Bloody Sunday” march shows her sprawled on the pavement, her head resting in a fellow marcher’s lap. “One of them [troopers] 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,” she continued telling the enthralled listeners. “One of the troopers said ‘she’s dead.’ And they were told to drag me to the side of the road.”
A call rang out for ambulances to come over the bridge and pick up the wounded and those thought to be dead. “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, finally, after several minutes, she was carted off to the hospital, where she regained consciousness. “I wondered where I was,” she said. “But then I remembered the voice through the bullhorn, the gas being shot, and then the men with gas masks.”
Several years went by before she fully recovered from the ordeal that nearly killed her. Her once melodious voice was severely damaged by the gas. The gas may have hurt her vocal cords, but it could not muffle her commitment or keep her from the ramparts of the movement.
Some of what she talked about that Sunday in Washington Heights at the church where Rev. Ike used to deliver his sermons is vividly depicted in the movie “Selma,” and Robinson is very effectively portrayed by Lorraine Toussaint.
What the film did not capture were the early years of her life, which began Aug. 18, 1911 in Savannah, Ga. One of 10 children, she was born Amelia Platts and received an early indoctrination into civil and voting rights activity when she traveled with her mother in the 1920s, after women had been allowed to vote. They passed out leaflets advancing the fight for women’s suffrage.
She was a teenager when she enrolled at the Georgia State Industrial College for Colored Youth (now Savannah State University). Later, she transferred to what is now Tuskegee University to study with the famous botanist George Washington Carver. Subsequently, she earned a degree in home economics.
One of the first jobs she held was with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Dallas County, Ala. Her job was to instruct women (and sometimes men) in homemaking, nutrition and other skills necessary to maintain a viable household. In 1936, she married Samuel Boynton and they began the years of trying to register to vote in the county. He died in 1963.
None of the various tests posed by the registrar, many of them absurd, such as as the number of bubbles in a bar of soap, could stifle her attempts to vote, a right she obtained in the 1930s. She then devoted many years to helping others to register and this activity led her into the ranks of the civil rights activists of her day, including Dr. King and John Lewis
Along with her registration efforts, she ran unsuccessfully for Congress in Alabama in 1964. She was the first African-American to run for Congress since Reconstruction and tallied 10 percent of the vote, which was quite remarkable given the Jim Crow restrictions on Black voters. A year later, she would be among the leaders of the Selma to Montgomery march, putting her right in harm’s way
Throughout the Selma campaign, Robinson was a central figure. Her home was often utilized by members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, where they planned their strategies or simply relaxed from the struggle.
In the 1980s, mainly through her affiliation with the Schiller Institute, an organization associated with the Lyndon LaRouche Jr., a former Marxist who became known for his right-wing views, she published her memoir, “Bridge Across Jordan,” in 1991.
A year before the book’s publication, she was the recipient of the Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Medal.
In 2004, she was once more in the news after losing a defamation lawsuit against ABC and the Disney Company, which she charged had depicted her as an “Aunt Jemima” character who sang spirituals in “Selma, Lord, Selma!”
And it was wonderful to see her in front of the marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge during the 50th anniversary celebration, with President Obama, his wife, Michelle, and Rep. John Lewis nearby.
At her death, according to news reports, she lived in Tuskegee. Robert Billups, her second husband, died in 1973. Her third husband, James Robinson, died in 1988. Her son, Bill Boynton Jr. died last year. Survivors include a daughter and another son, Bruce Carver Robinson, the godson of George Washington Carver.