It was October 1996 and I had just finished a round of campaigning for an Advisory Neighborhood Commission seat in the Pleasant Plains section of Northwest Washington. As I walked by the Howard Plaza Towers that Sunday evening, I saw a gray-bearded gentleman sitting out front, passing out flyers. They read: “Vote for Lawrence Guyot for ANC 1B04”.
Before I knew it, Guyot began talking with me and gave me a thick packet relating to the Financial Control Board, which he referred to as a “Plantation Board”. The civil rights veteran snatched my attention with his use of language; he reminded me of a street activist from my hometown Atlanta, the late Rev. Hosea Williams. I dutifully picked up the information and began a relationship that would change the trajectory of my young political life.
Guyot already knew of my campaign for the ANC and vowed to support Nik Eames, another Howard student, and me. “I’m a SNCC veteran, so I must support progressive students,” he said of his days on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
On Election Day, we marched more than 100 students from Charles Drew Hall dormitory to Meyer Elementary School to vote. Several community members attempted to challenge our voting credentials. Guyot was not having it; he stepped in front of us and led us into the polls that day saying, “let the students vote!” His wife Monica loaned me her car to help transport student voters. Their support was critical and vital. The final vote tally was 192 to 181. I had won a seat to the ANC by 11 votes.
I was reminded last week of those days of 16 years ago when I heard that Guyot, the civil rights icon, had died. He was indeed a institution, a pillar of history, but for many young people in Washington like myself, he was a mentor and friend, someone who, with his personal touch, moved so many of us to serving our community. He encouraged principled service and standing up for yourself. He supported many of us who wanted to make a difference in the world.
He helped young people like me think for ourselves and challenge power, whatever its face. The summer after I was elected, Guyot came knocking and calling on the student government office. I had been elected President of Howard University Student Association, representing all Howard students. The issue at hand was the Howard Street Privatization bill before the D.C. Council.
D.C. Mayor Marion Barry (D) proposed the bill on behalf of Howard to privatize the internal streets within the main campus. Guyot’s position was clear: if Howard wanted the streets, they must revitalize the run down dilapidated properties they owned in the LeDroit Park neighborhood. Guyot was lobbying me to step out against my own university.
I conceded to Guyot my hesitancy in doing this, but Guyot challenged me to have a broader perspective of the university’s relationship to the community and nation at large. Guyot was challenging me to be a reformer and not simply one to soak up the rewards of public office for personal gain. I can hear Guyot’s now: “Jonathan, if you are principled first, everything else will fall in place.”
Guyot swayed me to his position and helped Eames and me mobilize more than 100 students to march for democracy in D.C. on Sept. 3, 1997.
He masterfully built a coalition with Howard students and local civic leaders to win Council member Frank Smith (D) and, ultimately, Barry to withdrawing Howard’s street proposal. Today, I see the LeDroit Park Revitalization Initiative, a partnership between Howard University and Fannie Mae, which rehabilitated the university’s properties, as a testament to Guyot’s advocacy.
Beyond Guyot’s local advocacy, I was inspired by the deep respect, love and admiration his generation of fellow civil rights fighters bestowed upon him. It reinforced to me the movement sense of struggle and not the “Great Man” lens that many in my generation view the struggle for humanity. Too many in my generation see the civil rights movement as Dr. King and this march on Washington.
This movement element was evident to me on Feb. 17, 1998, when we hosted the late Kwame Ture (Stokley Carmichael) for what became his last fireside chat at “The Mecca”. It was in Rankin Chapel that Kwame, feeble and obviously dying from prostate cancer, upon seeing Guyot in the audience literally lifted him off the ground shouting, “Guyot!” That memory will always live with me.
Guyot was a living example of the politically engaged citizen at the highest level. He demonstrated power begins at the level of conception, that one could wage struggle no matter where they found themselves in the society. One did not need a political office or title to organize for the least of these. I can see Guyot now going to the LeDroit Park Civic Association meeting, having the most information to pass out having already internalized the pressing issues facing the community. My generation and this world are forever grateful for the sacrifice of Guyot during the Civil Rights struggle and beyond.
I once remember a fellow student at Howard asking me to apply to the Patricia Robert Harris Public Affairs Program. She told me I would learn politics there. I told her to come with me down the street to Lawrence Guyot’s house. There we would learn the art and science of politics and we did not need to file an application.
Love you Guyot. Miss you eternally. Thank you for all you gave. Onward Soldier!
Hutto is a first year doctoral student in Howard University’s political science program. As an undergraduate student, he served with Lawrence Guyot on Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1B from January 1997 to January 1999. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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