In 1998, a group of black and white students on the campus of the University of Mississippi came together to address racism on campus. They were clear from the start that, as they addressed these difficult issues, they wanted to learn the lessons of activism and progress from the Mississippi civil rights movement.
One of us had the mailing list of attendees at the 1994 Freedom Summer reunion that had been held at Jackson State University. We sent a letter to all of the attendees — well over 100 people. We received two replies: one from Charles McDew and the other from Lawrence Guyot, the civil rights pioneer who died Nov. 23. Both responses echoed the same message: Anytime black and white young people in Mississippi needed them, they would answer the call.
Such was my introduction to Guyot, as most everyone called him. He was a homegrown activist, who loved Mississippi and knew it could be better, and who gave all of his energies to help make it better. Born in Pass Christian on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Guyot learned the virtues of diversity from his coastal environment. He once told me that he had to travel above Interstate 10, which cuts through the South, to learn about racism. Although he and I knew that the Gulf Coast was not an oasis of perfection in race relations, he learned as a child that whites and black could work together.
Guyot was one of the first Mississippi young people to join the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. It would be Guyot who helped Fannie Lou Hamer find other lodging and work after Sen. James Eastland fired her and threw her off his plantation for daring to register to vote. And it was Guyot who discovered that Hamer, June Johnson and Annell Ponder in 1963 were being held in a Winona, Miss., jail for violating a segregation ordinance. All three women had been brutally beaten, and Guyot’s reward for finding the missing women was to be beaten brutally, too.
But such deterrents failed to sway his commitment to democracy. Guyot’s leadership and intellectual framing of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party showed us how to create a parallel democratic institution when the regular institution was not living up to the American promise. He showed us how to make democracy in this country be democratic in deed and in word.
And, as he would often argue — and those of us who knew him well understood his penchant for debate! — it was the work of activists in Mississippi that fueled the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act that transformed the American South and the nation. In helping to change Mississippi, he helped to change the nation for the better. He understood that the change that happens in Mississippi ripples out to the country at large. He had every right, given his treatment by white supremacists in Mississippi, to hate white folks. However, he never gave up on the possibility of their redemption.
As he answered the call of my students, he truly became a teacher and a cheerleader to them. For the past decade, he made them and me think more deeply and strategically; he bolstered us when others questioned our motives or tactics. He and his family became dear friends. He was one of the first voices to demand that the University of Mississippi create an institute to promote reconciliation and then worked to help shape me into an effective director of that institute. I would not be doing the work I do today throughout his home state without Guyot’s influence and support.
As news of Guyot’s passing spread over this past weekend, I heard from my students, many of them now grown, who said how transformative their time was with him and how they are committed to civil and human rights work because he shared so much with them. And in the end, for me, this knowledge encompasses Guyot’s greatest accomplishment.
He did not simply transform political structures to be more inclusive and just — such policies, as we have increasingly seen, can be dismantled, and Guyot spent his final days countering challenges to discriminatory voter ID laws. Most importantly, Guyot invested his time in the development and transformation of young people who will ensure that progress continues. The hope they give us is his lasting legacy.
Susan M. Glisson is the executive director of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi.
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