Amelia Boynton Robinson, who led voting drives and ran for Congress as a civil rights activist in Alabama, and whose severe beating by police during the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” confrontation at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., shocked the nation, died Aug. 26 at a hospital in Montgomery, Ala. She was 104.
She had complication from strokes suffered in July, her son, Bruce Boynton, said.
Born when slavery and the Civil War were still in living memory, Mrs. Boynton Robinson became a voting rights activist in the 1930s and was a friend of Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and other civil rights leaders in the 1950s and 1960s.
She lived long enough to attend President Obama’s State of the Union address in January and to accompany the president across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in March, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Selma march that almost claimed her life.
“She was as strong, as hopeful, and as indomitable of spirit — as quintessentially American — as I’m sure she was that day 50 years ago,” Obama said Wednesday in a statement. “To honor the legacy of an American hero like Amelia Boynton requires only that we follow her example — that all of us fight to protect everyone’s right to vote.”
Mrs. Boynton Robinson was portrayed by actress Lorraine Toussaint in the 2014 feature film “Selma,” directed by Ava DuVernay.
In 1934, Mrs. Boynton Robinson became one of the few African American women registered to vote in Selma. She and her husband, S.W. “Bill” Boynton, worked for the county agricultural extension service before opening real estate and insurance offices. For years, her son said, she was publicly known by only her initials, A.P. Boynton, so that white people would not dismissively call her by her first name.
The Boyntons, who were leaders in Selma’s black community, met King in 1954. After her husband died in 1963, Mrs. Boynton Robinson became the first African American woman in Alabama to run for Congress. She lost in the 1964 Democratic primary.
Her congressional campaign brought attention to the lack of voting rights among African Americans in the South. More than half the residents of Selma and surrounding Dallas County were African American, but only 2 percent were registered to vote.
In January 1965, while leading a voters’ drive at the courthouse in Selma, Mrs. Boynton Robinson was charged with “criminal provocation” and was arrested by the county’s notoriously race-baiting sheriff, Jim Clark.
“When she refused to leave the sidewalk in front of the courthouse, Sheriff Clark grabbed her by the back of her collar and pushed her roughly and swiftly for half a block into a patrol car,” the New York Times reported.
King, who was watching from across the street, immediately went to officials of the Justice Department to demand a court injunction against the sheriff.
“It was one of the most brutal and unlawful acts I have seen an officer commit,” King said at the time.
Things would get worse.
Along with the Rev. C.T. Vivian and others, Mrs. Boynton Robinson planned a march from Selma to the Alabama capital of Montgomery, more than 50 miles away. It was scheduled for March 7, 1965.
As about 600 marchers walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they were met by 200 state troopers, plus posses of white men, many on horseback, deputized for the day by Sheriff Clark.
The marchers were given two minutes to disperse. After one minute and five seconds, the phalanx of troopers and vigilantes advanced.
“I saw them as we marched across the bridge, some with gas masks on, clubs and cattle prods in their hands, some on horses,” Mrs. Boynton Robinson told The Crisis, the official magazine of the NAACP, in 2005. “They came from the right, the left, the front and started beating people.”
A trooper struck her on the shoulder with a billy club.
“I gave him a dirty look,” she told The Crisis, “and the second time I was hit at the base of my neck. I fell unconscious. I woke up in a hospital.”
A photographer captured the incident, as a fellow marcher sought to comfort Mrs. Boynton Robinson, who was 53 at the time. She was wearing a light-colored coat, gloves and heels.
Another marcher on the front line was John Lewis, now a Democratic congressman from Georgia. Before going to the hospital with a fractured skull, Lewis said, “I don’t see how President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam; I don’t see how he can send troops to the Congo; I don’t see how he can send troops to Africa and can’t send troops to Selma, Alabama.”
Sheriff Clark reportedly told his officers not to offer any assistance to the nearly 70 marchers who were injured. As for Mrs. Boynton Robinson, he said, “Let the buzzards eat her.”
She was rescued by other marchers and taken to a segregated hospital, where she recovered.
Throughout the country, people were appalled at the graphic images of police violence on the day that became known as Bloody Sunday. Two weeks later, King led another march from Selma to Montgomery.
“How long will justice be crucified and truth buried?” King said at the march’s end. “How long? Not long. Because no lie can live forever.”
Within months, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the bill at the White House, one of his invited guests was Mrs. Boynton Robinson.
Amelia Isadora Platts was born Aug. 18, 1911, in Savannah, Ga. Her father was a builder. While still in her teens, she graduated from the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where she became a friend of the noted botanist George Washington Carver.
In 1936, Mrs. Boynton Robinson wrote a play, “Through the Years,” about a former slave who won election to Congress during Reconstruction. It was based on the life of her father’s half-brother, Robert Smalls.
In 1969, Mrs. Boynton Robinson married musician Bob Billups, who died in a boating accident in 1973. Her third husband, James Robinson, a former Tuskegee classmate, died in 1988.
Survivors include a son from her first marriage, Bruce Boynton of Selma; and two granddaughters.
Bruce Boynton, a Howard University-trained lawyer, was arrested in 1958 at a whites-only lunch counter in a Richmond bus station. His case, Boynton v. Virginia, was taken up by lawyer and future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. In 1960, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that interstate travel facilities should be desegregated.
Mrs. Boynton Robinson settled in Tuskegee in 1976 and later became a vice president of the Schiller Institute, an organization affiliated with political extremist and fringe presidential candidate Lyndon R. LaRouche. She said she was drawn to his ideas for economic revival. LaRouche went to prison after being convicted of mail fraud in the 1980s.
In 2007, Mrs. Boynton Robinson attended the funeral of Clark, her onetime nemesis, who died unrepentant.
“He was supposed to have been so popular, but there were only 80 people at his funeral,” she told CNN this year.
“I was brought up by people who loved others,” Mrs. Boynton Robinson added. “We had no animosity. We had no feeling that we hate anyone.”