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Jabari Asim

Sunday, Bloody Sunday

By Jabari Asim
Monday, February 28, 2005; 10:19 AM

WASHINGTON -- "Amelia Boynton" is not a household name, but it should be.

Now in her 90s, Boynton was a tireless warrior in the battle for civil rights. In countless ways and in numerous skirmishes, she went beyond the smoke and rhetoric of mere speechifying to put her body on the line.

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That's what she was doing on March 7, 1965, a day now known as "Bloody Sunday."

Approximately 600 marchers gathered at Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church on that morning. They planned to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge leading from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery, where they intended to present a petition of grievances to Gov. George Wallace.

A photo on the cover of the March 19, 1965, issue of Life magazine provides a stark, illuminating view of the scene at the bridge. Near the top of the cover, a headline announces the beginning of "The Savage Season." Near the bottom, a caption: "Alabama troopers await marching Negroes in Selma."

In between, the opposing forces face each other. On the right side of the page, a line of state troopers stare at the approaching marchers. Unseen are the mounted posse and motley troublemakers assembled behind them. On the left, a long column of marchers arrayed in pairs.

Hosea Williams and John Lewis are in front. Williams has his hands in his pockets. So does Lewis, wearing his ubiquitous backpack. Four pairs of men stand between Lewis and Boynton. She is standing with fellow activist Marie Foster, who can't be seen. Boynton is recognizable, a plastic rain kerchief on her head and a large pocketbook suspended from her shoulder.

What followed was a scene straight out of Yeats' "The Second Coming":

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned ...

The police and their allies swooped down on the unarmed marchers. Lewis later described the scene in his memoir: "I remember the clunk of the troopers' heavy boots, the whoops of rebel yells from the white onlookers, the clip-clop of horses' hooves hitting the hard asphalt of the highway, the voice of a woman shouting, 'Get 'em!"'

Lewis wound up in the hospital, waylaid by a severe concussion. Boynton also absorbed several blows. She recalled that the horses "were more humane than the troopers" because they appeared to avoid stepping on the fallen marchers. She was beaten unconscious, an ordeal captured in chilling detail by photographers on the scene.

Boynton and her husband Sam had been politically active in Selma before the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had come to town. She was a leader of the Voters' League in Dallas County, where overt racism, literacy tests and obscure questions about the Constitution combined to limit black registration to 1 percent. Boynton was one of the 1 percent.

"She's an educated woman," said Evelyn Gibson Lowery, an activist who has known Boynton for decades. "She was able to correct the registrars. She would tell them how to pronounce words."

The tall, dignified Boynton was one of the individuals Lewis mentioned when he wrote of Selma as "a bottom-up campaign, of the people acting with minimal direction of the leaders. ... It was essentially the people themselves who pointed the way."

Although she's in poor health, Boynton, now Boynton-Robinson, plans to be on hand in Selma on March 5 and 6, when Lowery will lead a tour commemorating the 40th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. The Civil Rights Heritage Tour will visit important landmarks in Selma and Montgomery.

Lowery has conducted such outings for 25 years. During that time she has raised funds and erected monuments to individuals who fought -- and sometimes died -- so that all Americans could be free. This year, Boynton and the late Marie Foster, who stood beside her on Bloody Sunday, will be honored.

Lowery's mission includes recognizing civil-rights warriors whose work rarely garnered headlines. "Very few of the noted leaders could have done it by themselves," she told me. "There were so many people in the background who made it possible. They worked and fought seriously for our people. It's important to pull out those names so people will know that many people participated in the movement and need to be recognized."

She makes an excellent point. The most we could do to honor the legacy of such stalwart Americans is commit ourselves to living as they did, and continue to do -- with integrity, courage, selflessness and purpose. The least we could do is remember their names.

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