Amelia Boynton Robinson, Matriarch of Voting Rights Movement, Dies at 104


Amelia Boynton Robinson, called the matriarch of the voting rights movement, passed away on Wednesday in Montgomery, Alabama, at age 104.

Mrs. Boynton Robinson dedicated her life to the struggle for voting rights. Born in Savannah, Georgia, on August 18, 1911, she accompanied her mother to advocate for women’s suffrage before the Nineteenth Amendment gave women the right to vote in 1920. She entered college at age 14, and graduated from the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) before a job as a demonstration agent with the U.S. Department of Agriculture brought her to Dallas County, Alabama.

In Selma, the county seat, she overcame tests designed to bar Black people from registering to vote, and registered to vote in the early 1930s. She worked for decades to register African American voters in the South, and remained a leading civil rights advocate throughout her life.

In 1964, Mrs. Boynton Robinson ran for Congress from Alabama, becoming the first Black person since Reconstruction, and the first Black woman ever, to do so. Despite the restricted number of African Americans registered to vote in her district, she won 10 percent of the vote.

Mrs. Boynton Robinson worked with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and she helped organize the voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery. On March 7, 1965, she was at the front of hundreds of demonstrators as they began to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. When Alabama state troopers attacked the marchers with tear gas, billy clubs, and whips, she was knocked unconscious. A photograph of her lying on the ground with a white trooper standing over her with his nightstick was widely circulated and became one of the galvanizing images that made Bloody Sunday a turning point in the voting rights struggle.

“I wasn’t looking for notoriety,” she said in an interview with the New York Post in December 2014. “But if that’s what it took,” she added, “I didn’t care how many licks I got. It just made me even more determined to fight for our cause.”

An early draft of the Voting Rights Act was written in Mrs. Boynton Robinson’s home in Selma, and she was present at the White House when President Johnson signed the bill into law on August 6, 1965.

Fifty years later, she held hands with President Obama as she was pushed across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in a wheelchair. “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,” President Obama said in a statement on Wednesday. “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 (center) at an awards ceremony in Montgomery in 2011 with EJI Senior Attorney Sia Sanneh (left)