Lawrence Guyot, civil rights icon, memorialized by hundreds at D.C. service
By Hamil R. Harris,
Decades after they stood as foot soldiers in a multiracial army to integrate the South, veterans of the civil rights battles of the 1960s gathered in a Northwest Washington church Saturday to celebrate the life of Lawrence Thomas Guyot Jr.
Mayor Vincent C. Gray, U.S. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and Council member Marion Barry all were seated in the pulpit of the Goodwill Baptist Church to pay tribute to Guyot, a man who went from being a Mississippi activist during the bloodiest chapter of the civil rights movement to a community leader in the city for decades.
“Lawrence Guyot was an unsung hero among thousands of unsung heroes who were not looking for anything. They were there because they loved freedom,” Barry said during the memorial service, which attracted hundreds, including civil rights veterans, community leaders and elected officials.
Gray said Guyot had a “commanding presence” from Mississippi to the District, and that he used to “fight for freedom” all of his life. “I didn't know Lawrence Guyot in the days of the Mississippi freedom fighting but I knew him in the District of Columbia,” Gray said. “If he was half the person in Mississippi that he was in the District, I wouldn't want to tangle with Guyot. He was resolute, he was clear, he was eloquent and he was brilliant.”
Guyot died Nov. 23 and was eulogized last week in Mississippi. On Saturday, Gray, Norton and members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee talked about how Guyot made a difference in the pursuit of freedom — whether it was as the chairman of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party or as an Advisory Neighborhood Commission representative in Ward 1.
“I am here to remember a man who gave far more than he received,” said Joyce Ladner, former vice president of Howard University and former member of the D.C. Financial Control Board. She first met Guyot when she and her sister Dori were students at Tougaloo College in Mississippi.
Perhaps the most compelling tribute at the memorial was simply the sight of black and white men and women who as students four decades ago became SNCC members and Freedom Riders at great risk to themselves.
Comedian and activist Dick Gregory called it a victory that Guyot was able to die of natural causes under the care of a physician, because during the height of the civil rights movement he was physically attacked so often that people didn’t expect him to live through it.
Guyot began working for the SNCC in 1962 and became director of the 1964 Freedom Summer Project in Hattiesburg, Miss. He was the founding chairman of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which sought to include African Americans among the Democratic Party’s delegates to the national convention.
In one of the bloodiest chapters of the civil rights struggle in Mississippi, Guyot and others, including Fannie Lou Hamer, were arrested in 1963 and severely beaten while in jail in Winona, Miss.
In testimony after the beating, Guyot said he had gashes on his head, was bleeding from his nose and mouth and was bruised from his chest to his lower legs. Later, he recalled in a 2007 interview with The Washington Post, he was taken from his cell and shown to a group of white men gathered behind the jail.
But Heather Booth, another field secretary of SNCC, said Guyot endured and survived because “he kept his eyes on the prize and he never turned back.”
During the service, Guyot’s daughter, Julie Guyot-Diangone, said that as a child “all of my lullabies were freedom songs.” Moments later, those in attenfance rose, locked arms and sang the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.”