Amelia: Defender of the Vote
Amelia Boynton Robinson, “Queen Mother” to those close to her, was the perpetual defender of the Negro vote. She transitioned on August 26, 2015, eight days after her 111th birthday.
Amelia learned the importance of voting from her parents George and Annie Platts. Her father was a businessman in Savannah, Georgia. He owned a lumber company, built an eleven room house for his family – which still stands today – and owned one of the few automobiles on the Savannah roadway in the early 1900’s. He would have owned two automobiles, but Amelia’s mother did not want to learn to drive a car, so he bought her a horse and buggy to get around Savannah.
Before Amelia’s family acquired the horse and buggy, her mother would use the public bus to get around town. One day while paying the fare at the front of the bus, the bus driver instructed her to go to the back of the bus in order to board it. She refused. The driver refused to allow her to board at the front entrance of the bus. Amelia’s mom threw the money for the bus fare into the driver’s face, grabbed Amelia’s hand and walked off to their destination.
Amelia’s fighting spirit in the face of an injustice was born.
When she was nine or ten years old, a Savannah judge perturbed Amelia’s mom. Annie Platts pointed her finger in the judge’s face and told him that she would vote him out of office in the next election. A bold and brave promise for a black woman in the early 20th century south.
“When I was a young girl, I would ride in the horse and buggy with my mother as she worked in the community to get black people registered to vote in Savannah, Georgia,” Amelia recalled during an interview at the 2012 National Democratic Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.
After the votes were counted following that election, that judge had been voted out of office. Amelia saw the awesome power of the vote.
Upon completion of the high school program offered in Savannah, she enrolled in the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Tuskegee Institute, Alabama, where she came under the tutelage of Robert Russo Moton and George Washington Carver.
In 1927 she earned a degree from Tuskegee. She moved to Americus, Georgia, home of the future 39th President of the United States, Jimmy Carter, who was only two years old at that time. She taught school in Americus for six months in the segregated school system. As a young woman, Amelia had a very feisty spirit and when asked by her principal if she had any comments to make regarding the administration of the school, she spoke up. The principal had never heard a sharp critique of his administrative abilities and could not abide Amelia’s stinging assessment of his bothersome nature and the lack of school materials. He promptly fired her. She obtained another teaching position in Georgia, but again found herself out of work three months later.
Then, through a Tuskegee connection, she received a call from the U S Department of Agriculture. They were developing an extension agency in Alabama modeled after the traveling school that had been put together by Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver at Tuskegee. This job landed her in Selma, Alabama where she teamed up with a Tuskegee classmate, Samuel W. Boynton, who was already working for the Department of Agriculture.
Amelia and Boynton would later marry and become a powerful force in Dallas County, Alabama; chiefly because of their efforts in registering black people in the county to vote. Boynton, who went by the initials SW, started a real estate company and the two of them would help black people to acquire land so that they could meet the requirement for registering to vote. SW was often hounded by whites in the county because of his independent wealth and political activities of his quick witted wife. One day a group of white men came to his office prepared to beat him into submission, Amelia grabbed a stick and ran them out of their office.
For two decades Amelia and SW fought the political battles for the local black community; then in the early 1960’s the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee – the student arm of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference – came to town. They were put to work on voter registration. Tensions began to mount in Selma. There were clashes with the local sheriff’s department. Progress was slow until Amelia got the ear of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
She told King how her mother, in the early days of the “roaring twenties,” had taught a valuable lesson to an old Savannah judge through the power of voter registration. King committed some of SCLC’s resources to Selma. They set up an office and manned it on a rotational basis with men like Hosea Williams, Andrew Young, and C. T. Vivian.
According to C. T. Vivian, “When we were assigned to an office, we had to stay there until your relief came. If your relief had been waylaid because they had been arrested in a protest somewhere else, you had to stay there. Martin would not allow us to leave our post unattended.”
So the Boynton home became a home away from home for the SCLC members who were assigned to Selma. Amelia would cook meals and have them over. The skeleton of what would become the 1965 Voting Rights Act was drafted on her dining room table.
Fifty years ago, this past March, Amelia was left for dead on the Edmund Pettis Bridge. She had been a marked woman by Sheriff Jim Clark, who ordered his officers and others whom he deputized, to beat marchers who attempted to leave Selma and take their case for voters rights to the State Capitol in Montgomery. Seeing an unresponsive Amelia on the bridge, Clark first ordered her to be placed in a ambulance for transport to the hospital, then directed the undertaker to take possession of her body. Suddenly, Amelia began to breathe again. And she did not stop breathing until 50 years and five months later.
Eight years ago when Jim Clark died, Amelia summoned her friend, former Tuskegee Chief of Police, Leon Frazier and asked him to take her to pay her respects to Clark.
“I asked her why did she wanted to go to Jim Clark’s funeral,” Frazier said a few hours after receiving word that “Queen Mother” had transitioned. “She said she wanted the world to know that she did not hate Jim Clark for the meanness he had shown to her. So I took her to Elba, Alabama along with Mrs. Harriett, her caregiver. We were the only dark faces in the church.”
Amelia’s life, conceived through the love of her parents ended in love.
“Her last years were all about love,” Frazier said. “Love was the message she spoke to people everywhere she went. She especially wanted the children to be loved.”
Harold Michael Harvey, is the author of the legal thriller “Paper Puzzle,” and “Justice in the Round: Essays on the American Jury System,” available at Amazon and at haroldmichaelharvey.com. He can be contacted at email@example.com