“Remember, this is your day and your world.”
One of the most famous photographs taken of “Bloody Sunday”, when state troopers brutally assaulted civil rights marchers in Selma, Alabama, shows an unconscious woman—dressed in heels, gloves, and a formal hat—being cradled and protected by a fellow marcher. That woman was Amelia Boynton, an important figure in the Alabama civil rights crusade. The photo of Boynton’s bloodied body appeared on the front page of newspapers across the country, drawing attention to the cause of voter discrimination and the violence perpetrated against African-American citizens.
Mrs. Boynton came to Alabama from her home state of Georgia to work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Selma, Alabama. Through her job, she met Samuel Boynton, whom she eventually married. Both were active in voting, property, and education rights for poor African Americans in the South. Their first activism initiative was co-founding the Dallas County Voters League in 1933 and they led voter registration drives in the Selma area. Samuel died in 1963, but Boynton remained committed to the cause, offering her home as an office for prominent civil rights leaders.
In 1964, as civil rights issues were becoming more visible, Boynton ran for Congress and was the first female African American to run for office in Alabama and the first woman of any race to run for the Democratic Party in the state; she received 10% of the vote. In the same year, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) began planning their Selma to Montgomery March, which focused on voting rights, from Mrs. Boynton’s home. At that time, Selma’s population was 50% black, but only 300 of the city’s African-American citizens were registered to vote due to intimidation and strict or illegal voter registration regulations.
March 7, 1965, was the date planned for the march to Montgomery and some 600 peaceful protesters began their march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The marchers were brutally attacked by policemen who beat the activists with billy clubs and sprayed them with noxious tear gas. Boynton later described the event: “Then they charged. They came from the right. They came from the left. One [of the troopers] shouted: ‘Run!’ I thought, ‘Why should I be running?’ Then an officer on horseback hit me across the back of the shoulders and, for a second time, on the back of the neck. I lost consciousness.” Selma Sheriff Jim Clark reportedly ordered his officers to leave Boynton where she lay, saying “Let the buzzards eat her.” In addition to the severe contusions she received, she also suffered throat burns from the tear gas used.
Despite her hospitalization, Mrs. Boynton participated in two subsequent marches, including the successful march to Montgomery on March 24, with 25,000 fellow peaceful protesters. The first march, which came to be known as “Bloody Sunday”, roused the country to the cause and contributed to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. By March of the following year, the number of registered voters in Selma and the surrounding area grew from 300 to 11,000.
In 1990, Boynton was awarded the Martin Luther King Jr. Medal of Freedom and in 2015, Boynton, aged 103, marched with President Barack Obama and fellow civil rights activists across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery March. She died in August of that year at the age of 104.
“A vote-less people is a hopeless people,” she once said. Amelia Boynton gave hope, a voice and, eventually, a vote to African-American people throughout the South and across the country.
Lead image by Francis Miller/The Life Picture Collection