When civil rights activist and Washington D.C. statehood advocate Lawrence Guyot died Nov. 23, he left behind a legacy of activism that spanned more than 50 years.
Friends described Guyot, 73, as a “fearless” crusader for voting rights, human rights and statehood.
“He was a bright-eyed, feisty and tireless civil rights worker who spoke what was on his mind,” said Dr. Frank Smith, a former D.C. council member who founded the African American Civil War Museum in Northwest Washington. “He was deeply committed…and he dedicated his life to what really was a revolution in race relations in America.”
Born in Pass Christian, Miss., in 1939, Guyot came of age at a time when African Americans were increasingly pushing back against discrimination. After entering Tougaloo College in Jackson at 17 years old, he joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and worked to right racial wrongs.
At a celebration to honor his life and work five years ago, speakers ranging from community activists to Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), told stories about Guyot’s exploits.
"I come here to introduce him only because Martin, Medgar and Malcolm are unable to do so," said longtime educator Timothy Jenkins, who met Guyot in 1962 when he worked to create a school to educate black children. "He is significant not because he risked his life. He is significant because he knew there is a price more ultimate than death. It is disgrace."
Guyot bore scars from being beaten when he was jailed on several occasions, said long-time friend Dorie Ladner said.
One such incident occurred on June 15, 1963, a few days after civil rights activist Medgar Evers was slain in the driveway of his Jackson home. Guyot, then 24, tried to rescue two female activists, Fannie Lou Hamer and June Johnson, who had been jailed in Winona, Miss.
“Fannie Lou Hamer and some folks were coming back from a leadership training program where Martin Luther King spoke in Georgia on a Greyhound bus,” Smith said. “They got off the bus when it stopped to get some food. They were arrested, put in jail and beaten…Guyot went to get them and was arrested.”
Norton said she would have been afraid to go to the jail had she been Guyot.
In 1964, he was named the Hattiesburg director of the Freedom Summer Project and co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, whose activities contributed to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Margaret Kibbee, 66, of Greenville, Miss., said in an interview that she learned of Guyot’s work after moving south in the 1960s from California to work in the movement, but they became friends in 2004 when he spoke at a reunion of civil rights workers. She said Guyot is “honored in Mississippi.”
"He was revved up and anytime there was a big meeting, he had something to say,” she said. “I remember when we were organizing for the congregational challenge in 1965, he was sending out orders and letters. He was just the way he is now, sending out orders.”
Kibbee, who edited his newsletter, last spoke to him four or five days before he died. She plans to publish one more newsletter. Guyot had provided the material for it.
“It won’t be the same without his opening sermon for the newsletter,” she said. “It won’t have that majesty…”
Ladner met Guyot in 1961 when they were students at Tougaloo. “He was friendly and had this outgoing personality and aura around him,” she said. Decades later, they still spoke almost every day.
“I would call him and say, ‘What’s on the agenda?’” Ladner said. “We would discuss politics.”
Ladner said Guyot will be remembered for his “helpful spirit.”
“He was a lover of humanity and a doer,” she said. “He was also a political animal. He loved national and local politics. He would also help anyone because he was active with tenant rights, human rights and welfare rights.”
Smith said Guyot, who served as an advisory neighborhood commissioner, stayed relevant as the movement changed. Like Smith, who got involved in local politics after moving to D.C., he was among the activists who urged the
Democratic Party to include D.C. statehood in its platform and was disappointed when President Obama didn’t support statehood. He was nonetheless ecstatic to see him elected to a second term.
Smith said Guyot would want to be remembered “as someone who was passionate about freedom and democracy.” Funeral arrangements have not been announced.
“A minister once told me that God allows people to die slowly sometimes,” Smith said. “He and I had two very long conversations recently. He knew that his kidneys were failing and he was living on a dialysis machine. He had to be revived on at least one occasion. He was fully aware that his days were numbered. He was at peace with himself and with his God knowing he had done the best he could for as long as he could. That’s all any of us could want, to be able to say we have done everything we could.”
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