INTERVIEW: AMELIA BOYNTON ROBINSON
`A Vote-Less People
Is a Hopeless People'
Mrs. Robinson, a fighter for civil rights for nearly a century, is vice chairwoman of the Schiller Institute in the United States. Katherine Notley interviewed her on Feb. 15, shortly before Mrs. Robinson returned to Selma, Alabama to celebrate the 40th anniversary of a keystone battle for the right to vote—the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march, which had its baptism by fire on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965. She and her late husband S.W. Boynton had been fighting for voting rights for 30 years in Dallas County, Alabama, before the Selma march. Mrs. Robinson's autobiography is titled Bridge Across Jordan.
EIR: As you know, there's a lot of evidence that the 2004 vote in Ohio, in particular—in areas that appeared to be Democratic areas—there were a lot of shenanigans that went on, to prevent people from voting at all. Not just to steal their vote, but to keep them from voting. Areas that were Democratic, didn't have machines, for instance, and people waited 4 and 5 hours; in one precinct, they waited 9 to 11 hours to be allowed to vote. The last person voted at 3:00 in the morning. Other things went on.
You fought in the right-to-vote battles in the 1960s, and a lot of similar things went on just to keep people from even registering. So, maybe you can tell us some about that.
Robinson: Well, in 1867-68, men—not white men, not black men, but men—were the only ones who were allowed to vote. Only in 1920 or '21, women were given the right to vote. But, during that time, there were many, many African-Americans—or blacks, or colored, or Negroes, whatever you want to call them (you'll run out of names after a while, and I don't know what else you're going to say, when you run out of names), who realized the importance of fighting for justice, the Constitution of the United States' right. So, they began to register in large numbers, and to vote. And consequently, in almost every political position, you had people of color. They had some mayors, they had Congressmen, they had Senators, they had people in all of the political positions.
And in 1910, the system decided, that "We're going to stop this." So, they began to put all types of hurdles, to keep people from becoming registered voters. And, of course, that meant the South thought it was a good idea, and I'm quite sure they were the ones who orchestrated this. And very few black people began to register and vote. Not because they didn't want to, but because there were many hurdles that were placed, that they could not get over.
And, when I came along, which was many years ago, the only African-Americans who were registered voters, were those who were leftovers from those people who were given permission to vote without having to fill out the applications and whatnot.
I was able to vote when I became 21 years of age. You had to be 21 then. I didn't have any trouble, because I was working for the government, and my husband, a county agent, was a registered voter when he was working in Georgia. And he encouraged me, "As soon as you get 21, you register." And I did, with no trouble. The applications were one and one-half page, just the ordinary things you would ask—your name, your age, where do you come from, your date of birth, your place of birth.
But my husband and I realized that we needed all of these people to become registered voters. It isn't enough for us to be registered voters, and the few leftovers from 1910. Whether they were teachers, preachers, or whatnot, they could not register and become a voter. Then we began to fight for them to register.
Of course, being county and home-demonstration agents, the people in the rural district—and that was the masses of people who lived on plantations—they were the ones that we worked so feverishly with.
EIR: And this was in Selma?
Robinson: This was in Selma and Dallas County, Alabama.
The people in the rural districts, whom we had been teaching, were the ones who were hungry to become citizens. We had our office downtown in Selma, and of course, the county is 772 square miles, which means we had quite a large area. The people in the city feared, because fear was what the system used to keep them in check. They were afraid to do anything that—they didn't call them "masters," but in their minds that's what it was. Whatever he wanted; he didn't have to tell them. They were so conditioned, they would say to us that "white folks wouldn't like it." Which means that they were conditioned.
Well, we were able to get that out of the people, who were in the rural district. And we would have to teach them how to fill out those blanks of one and one-half page. We'd have to do it at night, in the churches, where they had lamp-lights. They would be anxious.
Then, those in the city who would like to, and those in the county who could come to Selma on Saturdays, were the ones who would come into the office. We had such signs in our office, as "If you have not made an attempt to register and vote, don't talk politics in here." And then, another sign we had was, "A vote-less people is a hopeless people."
The Jim Crow 'Plantation System'
People in those days didn't have money; some of them couldn't work, or they worked on the farm, but they didn't get anything for it. It was free labor! And then, somebody said to me, "Free labor? You mean to tell me they were on the farm working all the time?" Yes. Here's a family of ten children, mother and father, working as long as the farm needed them. The school year being three months long, they were told, if they were boys 13 years of age or older, and they were needed before the three months were over, they were told, "You have to get out of school." Consequently, the boys were always dropping out of school, because if they had to get out of school in the third grade, for instance, and then the next year, they would have to go back in that class, or the class that they would go into, they would find these little children and here they are, 14, 15, 16 years old. So, they just dropped out for good. And that's why you find, maybe in many places, it didn't have to be from the farm, but the women are much more educated than the men are, in general.
But, they're all working. And, you take, for instance—let's say the "Johnson family." At Christmas time, or just before Christmas, the system was, they'd call the head of the family in: "All right, James Johnson, come up to the Big House, or to the store"—if they had one—"and we're going to have a settlement." All right, the "settlement" would go like this: "Well, James, you made seven bales of cotton. You know we're working on 'halvers' "—as they would say. "Three bales will go to you, and three bales will go to me. Now, that's six bales. You can't halve a bale, so I'll just take that. Now James, you know the old mule died. We'll have to have another mule. You have to pay for that. And you have to have seed, feed, and fertilizer, you have to take that out.
"And, James, you know your daughter took sick, and you called me and told me that you wanted your child to go to the doctor. I had to call the doctor, and I had to make arrangements, so I'll have to take that out. And then James, before Christmas you came here and told me you needed some money to give your children Christmas, and I let you have some money. Have to take that out."
And he figures. Now, James can't figure with him, or he would be considered belligerent. "Now James, you're almost out of debt. You just owe me $250."
Well, James' feet are cemented in the plantation. He better not leave! If he left, he'd be arrested. Or they would concoct some type of plan, or some lie, that would put him in jail! So, James would have to stay right there—another year, after year, after year. That's why you found on the plantations, generations of people who had lived, some of them whose foreparents were brought from Africa and put into slavery.
So, that was the system.
Ticket to Freedom: The Buck and the Ballot
And we would tell them: There are two things. You are not independent, you are not a citizen. You're going to have to do things—you're going to have to control some money, and you're going to have to vote. Because a vote-less people is a hopeless people.
And then people began to realize, "staying on this farm, I'm hopeless!" And that's why the people in the rural district fought so hard with us, to get them to register and to vote.
Now, they didn't have the trouble that they had in the year 2004, because of the fact that they had their way. I had always thought that there were two things that were secret: In your mind, you knew what it was, you knew who you cast your vote for, which was supposed to have been private; and your communication with God. And we voted for somebody, and the guy called us up, and said, "I certainly appreciate your voting for me." Which meant that he found out, so it doesn't seem as though there was anything secret about it.
But, fighting for people to vote, getting people off of the farm, and telling them that "you have to be independent. The buck and the ballot will be your ticket to civilization, to justice, to freedom." And we were getting them off of the farm. And these were the things that made [the white power structure] hate us so badly. We were helping these people to get places that they could buy. And I don't care how evil some people are, the evil seemingly is a forerunner, and you can see the evil more than you can see the good. There was a white guy, who had a store in the city of Selma. And he sold farm products, like plows and whatnot. Well, he told my husband, "Boynton, if any of your people can find any kind of property, any kind of farm, and want to leave the farm that they're on, I will loan them money free of interest for the first year." And he did. And many of them left the farm....
These are things that the system did not want to happen. See, independence—you handle money. And there have been white people who have told me, and my husband, too, that "we have been voting for people all of the time, we've been handling their money; why in the world do you think you have to do it now?" And we said, "We have to train them how to do it."
"No. You don't disturb our system." And their system was left over from slavery.
But, when they found out that we were having these meetings, with our office being on the street opposite the City Hall, they would take their binoculars, and look into our office, and see these people come in and out. And tell them, "If you don't stop communicating with those folk, we're going to put pressure on you." And pressure, they really did—which of course, caused my husband to die [in 1963] with the strokes that he had from time to time....
Then, we had Gov. George Wallace. George Wallace put up every hurdle he possibly could, because he saw that we were fighting for civil rights, we were fighting for the right to vote. And he said, one time, "Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever."...
And the only thing that I see that can stop that, is what the Schiller Institute is doing, and what the youth are doing. Now, they're going to turn this country upside down, and straighten it out. Because they're being trained in what justice really is. And there were so many times in the South, that justice was only for people that were Caucasians. But, they [the youth] are the ones that have the "ammunition," and that's in their minds. They are going to straighten this country out.
And when it comes down to registration and voting, that is your ticket to first-class citizenship, and that's what you fight for, to free these people. Because, if they can't register, and if they can't fight the injustices and the way that they are using the folk, we will always have this type of thing.
And it won't only be for African-Americans. We're having people come from all parts of the world, and they're becoming citizens. We need them! We can't close our doors and say that we'll leave them out. But, they're going to vote, and then the system is going to try to go against certain things and keep them out. But, if this is the "land of the free and the home of the brave," we've got to do away with the old system that we have....
For 30 years, we fought to get such a small number of people registered! And how we did it, I don't know. We had to do it, through some of the white people who wanted somebody to vote for them.
But then, after Rosa Parks sat on the bus, between '55 and '60, we would follow the meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). We asked Dr. King to please come to Selma, because for 30 years, we had fought to get these people registered; for 30 years, we got such a small number registered.
Memorial Service for S.W. Boynton
Finally, he sent a guy by the name of Bernard Lafayette, who was at Fisk University. They sent him down there. When my husband passed, with his having worked with the young people—not the older ones, the younger ones were the ones who were going to jail, and being beaten—he told these young people, "Mr. Boynton has passed. Now, I want you to tell everybody that he has passed." Then, he went to one of the big churches in town, and he said to this minister, who worked with us undercover, Rev. L.L. Anderson—he said, "Reverend Anderson, I'd like for you to open your church. I'd like to have a memorial for Mr. Boynton."
Okay, he was glad to do it. But, when he went to the deacons, the deacons said, "Oh no you don't! We won't have that man's body here. We won't have that worry, because you know the white folks don't like it." That was the mentality of many. And when I say "many," I don't mean the poorest class, I'm talking about the upper class, the moneyed folk also, of Selma. So, he said, "Well, I'm going to have this memorial. If you don't permit me to have it in the church, I'll have it in the street!" So, I think they became fearful that, maybe the folk would burn the church down, or they became embarrassed.
Anyway, Sheriff Jim Clark, who's well known for beating up people, called "all full-blooded white men, to come to my office, be sworn in and given ammunition." And they did.
Then, on that Friday night, when he had the memorial, the people had to come through a line of white, deputized sheriffs. Some of them went in the church; many of them stayed out. But it was all because of what my husband had done, in trying to get people registered to vote.
On Monday morning, when they went to their jobs, in the foundries, in the factories, in the industries, and even in the kitchens, they were told, "You don't have any job. You're fired."
And they said, "Fired! When I left here Friday, didn't I leave everything all right?"
"Yes. But you attended that memorial for that S.W. Boynton. You're fired."
Then, those people figured, "Well, I'm a slave! I'm going to break these chains!" These are the adults, they're the ones who got into the lines, marched, demonstrated, and demanded, to become registered voters. Before, they just let their children do it, hoping it'd work. And that's all.
And George Wallace decided, "Well, I'm going to make it hard on them." So, on the registration days, the books were open every second and fourth Tuesday, that's all.
EIR: One day, every two weeks?
EIR: How generous.
Robinson: But, when that happened, they decided, "Well, we're going to see that the registration office is open." So, they started marching, they started demonstrating. George Wallace said, "No, they won't. They're not going to be able to pass." So, he had ten pages, ten questions on each page. And he would send it down on Monday night, which means neither the registrar nor anybody else had seen it. And then he would have them fill these out—and they didn't have but two or three chairs in the registration office.
Now, I would go into the courthouse, to vouch. Because there was a time, when you had to have three white men to vouch for you. You had to have property, you couldn't have a mortgage on your property—all of this to keep them from registering, and voting. Which was terrible!
And there was a guy who came in. And he had a big family. The registrar was sitting there; now, he had been through eighth grade, and he didn't know very much about law, but he was a registrar. So, he said, "Okay," to this old man, walking with a cane—he said, "Okay, what's your name?" He told him his name. "All right, you write your name here." And he started writing his name, and he went across the line—"Old man! What you think y're doin'? You failed already! You can't be any registered voter, if you can't even write your name on a straight line!" The old man looked up at him, and he said, "Mr. Henderson, I am 76 years old. I own 90 acres of land. I done raised ten children, and they're college graduates. I have my own home, and I do my own work—and if that ain't enough to be a registered voter, God have mercy on this country!"
And I think he preached it better than anybody else could! I was very proud of him.
Jailed for 'Criminal Provocation'
So, it was that particular time, that I came out of the courthouse, and I came out the side door. And in the front, there was Jim Clark, and he was standing up there, keeping people from coming into the courthouse. These were older people; many of them had lost their jobs because they went to the memorial; many of them were old, walking with sticks; many of them were people who were determined to become registered. And when I came out of the courthouse, this line of 62 people was standing on the sidewalk. Now, whether it rained or whatnot, they couldn't come in the courthouse. They had to stay out there, and they'd have to stand! They had nowhere to sit.
When I came out of the courthouse, I felt good, because of what this man had said, Jim Clark looked at me, and I'm walking down the street: "C'mon here, and get in this line!" I said, "I'm going to my office!"
"I said, 'Come here, and get in this line!' "
"I said, 'I'm going to my office.' "
And the third time he said, "You get in this line!" he ran behind me, and at the intersection, he grabbed me by the nape of my neck, turned me around, and started pushing me toward the paddy wagon. And I said, "I hope the news media will get this."
"I hope so, too!"
I really didn't know whether I should go limp, or turn around with my left and give him a sock in his eyes, or permit him to continue to push me—and he was really pushing me! But these 62 people, when I got parallel to them, they said, "Go to jail, Mrs. Boynton! Go to jail! You won't be there by yourself—we'll be there with you!" And of course, I just permitted him to continue pushing. You've seen that picture.
And I went to jail. And they said they would be there, and they were there. And you know, God works in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform: They drill-marched those people, and it reminded me of the Trail of Tears—and if you have not read the Trail of Tears, where the Indians were driven from the East Coast to the West, it behooves a person to read it. Well, like the Trail of Tears, they drilled these people from the County Courthouse to the City Hall. And here I am, in jail. I cried at first. But, when I heard these people's footsteps, it gave me courage. It really gave me courage to say, "Gosh! I got more to fight for than I thought I had!"
And when they got to the top of the steps—I could hear, because my cell was one of the first cells—I heard the jailer say, "I don't know what's wrong with these keys!" He was trying to open the door. (And if one has never been in jail, I say, "don't go," because the very door is made of iron. And when that door slams, it's something that seems to grab your heart.) When he tried to open that door, he couldn't open it. So, he called for another set of keys—and they wouldn't open the door. And I heard the people that were on the other side of the door. And I heard one woman say, "Yes, when God closes a door, no man can open it!" And then the others were saying "Amen!" and they started singing:
"Over my head, I hear angels in the air,
"Over my head, I hear angels in the air,
"Over my head, I hear angels in the air,
"Surely, there's a God somewhere!"
And you know, all of these old people—they were religious. Oh boy, they really preached!
So, they couldn't find a key. They called the locksmith. The locksmith was about a half-block from the jail. The locksmith came, and he could not open the door. He said, "I'll have to get an acetylene torch and blow this lock open." So, he had to go back.
They took those people back downstairs, put them on the elevator, and brought them up—they should have done that at the beginning. And then they said, "We told you that we weren't going to let you be here alone." And they kept them there for about four or five hours. They charged them with "unlawful assembly" when they were on the courthouse lawn.
I was kept there until about 12 o'clock that night. And I was charged with "criminal provocation." I don't know how they happened to put that together.
EIR: Provoking a criminal—like Jim Clark.
Robinson: That's the way we would say it. The case, of course, never came up.
But, the beatings, the jailings of people—they didn't have any jails, they didn't anywhere for them! They had to send them outside of the county, to other jails, because of the fact that they were jailing anybody and everybody who had color, that was trying to register.
This was not the worst price that was paid. But this was something that woke people up, all over the world. We let them know, that those people down in Alabama, and in the South—because the news media went to Mississippi, they went to Georgia, they went to Florida—they saw the conditions, they interviewed people, and found out that, as my husband said, "You are not a citizen! I don't care if you were born here, you're a chattel until you can register and vote."
EIR: But this incident with Jim Clark is what sparked the decision to march to Montgomery, wasn't it?
Robinson: No, it wasn't. It didn't happen in Jim Clark's county, it was in Marion, Perry County, which was the next county over. They were having mass meetings, just like we were having. At this particular time, they were at that church. After the church was out, they went to a black drugstore, and the state trooper—and this is what sparked it—the state trooper went into the drugstore, and for some reason he started beating a woman who was in a wheelchair. And her son made an attempt to protect her, and to keep him from beating up his mother, and they shot him in the back and killed him. Then, when that happened, the people said—and SCLC, we were working together—said, "We're going to take the casket to Montgomery, and put it on the steps of the capitol." Instead of taking the casket to Montgomery, which is 80 miles away, they came to the conclusion that, what we need to do, is to march from Selma to Montgomery, and plead our cause.
The March to Montgomery
So, they decided, on the 7th of March 1965, that we would march to Montgomery. We started out from the church. I knew I wasn't going to march all the way. I had planned on marching until they got to the first place where they were going to camp, and then I would have to go back home, because my house was turned over to Dr. King and his staff. And half of my office was given over to the SCLC, so I knew that I couldn't march for five days....
When we got just a little across the bridge, I saw these state troopers; I saw the sheriff's deputies, some of them were on the Selma side. I saw police. And the state troopers were in front. And I said to my friend Marie Foster, "My gosh! Those people look like tin soldiers!" They were standing erect, they were dressed in their uniform, they had a club, they had cattle prods—one in one hand, and one in the other. Then, they had on a gas mask, ready for what happened. There were some people on horses.
And when we got across the bridge—there's a light just across—the head of the state troopers, by the name of Cloud, was in a sound truck across the road. He said, "Turn around and go back to your church. You cannot go any farther." Now, we were led by John Lewis and Hosea Williams. When I started out, Marie and I were the second, but they began to come in between them—they must have known what was going to happen, and they didn't want us to get the worst of it.
We stopped, while Cloud was talking, and he said, "Go back to your church!" It was Hosea Williams who said, "May I have something to say?"
"No! You may not have anything to say. Charge on them, men!" And they came from the right, from the left, from in front of us. And they started beating us. And I'm the type of person—I don't know how to run. I couldn't run. I didn't run. Because—I think I was frozen. It was not because of fear. It was because of amazement: of people being beaten! I saw these people being beaten, I saw blood on the highway, I saw them falling, and how, right behind them, with the club, those people were beating them back across the river. And I was so amazed! Is this human? Is these people they are beating, and some of them are falling? And they would get up, and you could see that they either had broken limbs, or something, but they were still running. And I understand, one or two of them ran toward the river and came pretty near to falling in the river!
They just beat them back. And I looked around, there was nobody standing near me! So, one of the state troopers came up—all of this in the name of trying to register to vote, to become a first-class citizen: One of these state troopers came up to me, and he said, "Run!" And I just gave him a dirty look. Because I wasn't going to run.
Then he hit me on the back of my neck, across my shoulder. The first hit was on my shoulder. That's the time I looked at him and I gave him a dirty look. Then the second was the back of my neck, and that's the time, unconsciously I fell to the ground.
And I don't know what happened after that: But, I have been told, that—and the pictures, where this guy is standing over me with a stick—during the beating, my cap fell over my eyes, and part of my nose. That is the thing that saved me, because when one of the state troopers came up, I understand—because this is what more than one witness said—that they took a canister of gas and just pumped it all over me. So, my eyes were protected. And unconscious, with the beating and the tear gas, I don't know what happened, but I understand that when everybody was cleared out, nobody was left, they had dragged out the people who had broken limbs and whatnot, that one fellow said to Jim Clark, "There's somebody who's dead over there. Will you send an ambulance?" He said, "No! I'm not sending an ambulance anywhere! If anybody is dead over there, let buzzards eat 'em!" And he got angry—and he told me about it—and he said, "I told him, 'If you don't send an ambulance over there to pick up whoever that is, we're going to burn this town down!' " Then he sent the ambulance to pick me up and carry me to the hospital.
And when they took me to the hospital, I guess they gave me treatment. And when I came to, I asked "What happened? I remember when the fellow hit me around the shoulder, but I don't remember anything else."
I wasn't able to find out what was happening then, but I understand that they called Dr. King and said that he was supposed to have led that march. And he called all of his friends, everywhere, and asked them to come to Selma.
Many Paid the Supreme Price
That night, some of the people gathered at the office. Three ministers from Boston decided they wanted to eat, and in the next street there was an African-American restaurant. So they went to this restaurant—coming out, they made a wrong turn, and three white fellows, one with a pipe, approached these three ministers and started beating them. Reverend Reeb from Boston got the worst of it. And I understand they took him back to the office, and they found out that he was really hurt. They put him in a black ambulance and took them to the white hospital—and they refused to take him, because he was working with us. So, they carried him to the black hospital, which was Anderson's hospital, and they found out that they didn't have the equipment that could help him. They immediately put him back into the ambulance, and drove to Birmingham, 90 miles away. When they got to Birmingham, they found out he had concussion of the brain, and they kept him there, and in three days' time, he died. That was the supreme price, that was paid.
You see, many people paid the supreme price, for people to register and to vote. My husband died because of his trying to get people to register, and freeing them off of these plantations. Jimmy Lee Jackson died, because he attended the meeting and wanting to know more about how help to register and get these people through that.
And I think the system realizes, as my husband said, "The ballot and the buck will free you. The ballot will give you the ticket to first-class citizenship. The buck will free you from all of these bills that you have to pay. So, you get the ballot and the buck, and you are a free person."
And it's just as true now, as it was then.
And you know, when the Civil Rights Bill was passed, when the Voting Rights Act was passed, nobody should ever think that the evil people decided, "Well, there's nothing else we can do, so we'll go to sleep." They're just like a mole, a rodent that goes underground; and the only way you can see it, is you see the ground breaking. And that means that this rodent is underground.
So, I look at these people who are trying to circumvent justice, in registration and voting, how they are implementing every possible evil thing that they can think of: They realize that they can't tell people now, that "you can't vote," like they did back then in the '60s, before '65. But, they can do the same thing, in an evil, unjust way.
So, they are like this mole—planning, and programming, what is the next step for us to take, to keep those people from registering and voting. They are no better mentally, in being unjust, than Jim Clark. It's no different.
EIR: Like Kenneth Blackwell, the state registrar in Ohio.
Robinson: Yes! It's the same thing: He's a Jim Clark and he's a George Wallace!
EIR: And he's the one that certified the election in Ohio. And he would not hold the position he has, if you had not fought for the right to vote—that's the horrible irony.
Robinson: And yet he's there trying to keep other people from voting? I can't understand that. I'd like to talk to him! I'd really like to talk to him.