Fight To Vote: The Woman Who Was Key In 'Getting Us The Voting Rights Act'Historians in the News
tags: civil rights, African American history, voting rights, activism, social movements, Amelia Boynton
During the final week of Black History Month, I wanted to continue to look at the people who helped shape the Voting Rights Act, the powerful 1965 law that offered unprecedented protection for voting rights in America. As the country faces another surge of efforts to make it harder to vote, it’s a reminder of how hard Black Americans had to fight to gain and protect the rights to vote that are in place now.
Last week, I wrote about Bloody Sunday, the March 1965 protest that led directly to the Voting Rights Act. The heroes of that march – people like John Lewis, Hosea Williams and Martin Luther King Jr – have become lions of American history. But until recently, one of the most overlooked people in the march was Amelia Boynton (later Amelia Boynton Robinson), who had been organizing in Selma for years before Bloody Sunday and was the one who called in King to bring national attention to the voter suppression in the now historic city.
“She got us the Voting Rights Act,” said Carol Anderson, a historian at Emory University.
“It’s one of the ‘failings’, and I’ll put that in quotes, of the writings of the civil rights movement, is that women who are key in organizing are written out,” she added. “The grassroots work of Mrs Boynton just didn’t get the kind of respect and honor that it deserved.”
By the time Lewis, King and others arrived in Selma, Boynton was already one of the most well-known and respected people in its Black community. She came to the city in 1929 when she got a job with the US Department of Agriculture, traveling around the state to show African Americans how to improve their farming, but also talking to them about voting. She and her then husband, Samuel Boynton, held meetings in homes and churches, showing people how to register to vote as they faced literacy tests and poll taxes, Jim Crow era obstacles that prevented Black people from registering to vote.
She and Samuel Boynton ran an insurance agency, real estate office and employment agency. After her husband died, she became the first Black woman to run for Congress in 1964. Even though she lost – she got 10% of the vote – her campaign brought attention to the plight of Black voters in Selma, the Washington Post wrote in 2015. Though they made up more than half of the population, they composed just 2% of registered voters.
By 1964, Boynton was working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (Sncc) to lead demonstrations in Selma. When a local judge issued an injunction essentially blocking protests, she traveled to a board meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) where she urged King to come to Selma. “We did not choose them, they chose us,” Andrew Young, then a civil rights leader with the SCLC, said in 1985.
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