The living icon of the civil rights movement arrived in gold glitter shoes. She was in a wheelchair pushed by Rep. John Lewis, her friend and fellow Selma marcher. She wouldn’t be able to stand and clap as a guest at the State of the Union speech Tuesday night, but she could give interviews before it began. Her voice was soft, but her presence resonated.
Here was Amelia Boynton Robinson, a woman who was 53 when she was beaten unconscious in the first of the landmark attempts to march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., in 1965. And now, at 103, she was here to remind people watching President Obama’s address that those violent times, which we call history, were not so far in the past.
“My idea, my belief, my intention is for the United States of America to be known as a United States,” she said, slowing her words to emphasize the second “United.”
Robinson was surrounded by reporters, cameras, wires and recorders in the rotunda of the Cannon House Office Building. Her caretakers stood feet away, just to make sure she wasn’t being taxed for too long. The wizened equal-rights matriarch had only a few hours after her flight from Alabama to rest before being paraded around the Capitol.
“You remember,” her caregiver Harriet P. Oliver admonished, “Mother Robinson is 103. She’s the oldest living civil rights icon we’ve got!”
Until recently, the arc of Robinson’s story seemed to follow the traditional trajectory of the women who served in the trenches during that 1960s protest movement. They were nearly left off the official program for the 1963 March on Washington, at which the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his landmark “I Have a Dream” speech. Women were not among the top leaders of any of the major civil rights organizations.
Robinson was invited to the White House in 1965 for President Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the Voting Rights Act, but in the decades since, female leaders of the movement have rarely been celebrated. Robinson was not a household name.
Only in the past year has the limelight begun to shine on Robinson: Her role as a voting rights activist is central to the Oscar-nominated movie “Selma.” The movie makes clear that it was Robinson who helped convince King to come to the small Alabama town to make a stand for equality at the ballot box.
She put her body on the line during the first 1965 protest march from Selma to Montgomery on March 7; it became known as “Bloody Sunday” because of state troopers’ violent assault on the marchers. Robinson was knocked unconscious. A photo of her slumped-over body is one of the defining images of that day. As depicted in the movie, she had to be carried off the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where the march ended.
Fifty years later, Robinson was invited by Rep. Terri A. Sewell to be an honored guest at the State of the Union, where Obama referenced “the great march from Selma to Montgomery” and the Voting Rights Act. Sewell, a Democrat, is one of the first women elected to Congress from Alabama. Robinson ran for Congress in 1964, unsuccessfully.
“I was the only woman, black, white, blue or whatnot ever to run,” Robinson told Sewell.
Robinson’s role in history has been somewhat complicated by her long affiliation with the fringe political figure Lyndon LaRouche. She served as vice chairman of an institute founded by his wife — the group published Robinson’s autobiography in 1991 — and retired in 2009.
Robinson has attended many of the events in Alabama that mark the anniversaries of the 1965 marches. The 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” is in March. Celebrities, politicians, tourists, aged civil rights activists and others are expected to crowd the bridge. Obama has said he will be there.
But Robinson might not be strong enough to attend. She was unable to make it to the advance screening of “Selma” in Los Angeles last year.
The centenarian has grown frail. She spent most of Tuesday resting to preserve her energy for sitting through Obama’s State of the Union speech. Perhaps she has marched enough.
“But I think God is rewarding her, letting her live this long,” said Oliver, one of her caretakers. “Don’t count her out. She’s always telling us, she still has something to do.”