Amelia Platts Boynton: Mother of the Voting Rights Act

Civil rights leader has overcome many challenges in her 99 years, including surviving a recent stroke

She was gassed, beaten, and left for dead, but Amelia Platts Boynton did not die. In fact, at age 99, Boynton still has a strong voice, and she used it most recently to speak to the youth of Savannah, the place she was born. Boynton is still surviving against incredible odds today, having recovered from a stroke, the same illness that took her husband from her decades ago.

Boynton developed her drive, intelligence, and religious devotion while growing up in a neighborhood where the Savannah Mall now stands.

"Life was wonderful here in Savannah," Boynton recalls. "Almost all of the activity was at our house. Other kids would go to the movies on Saturday, but we didn't want to go. We wanted to have a good time with each other, playing games and making up poems."

"My mother wrote poetry and would tell us stories and then we would do the same thing," Boynton says. "At lunchtime we'd read the newspapers to each other and catch each other's mistakes."

Boynton's mother also had a strong political influence on her.

"When women were given the right to vote, my mother took me in the horse and buggy and drove around to different houses, to help take the people to the registration office."

At age 16, Boynton moved to Selma, Alabama to study at the Tuskegee Institute. At age 21, she became one of the first ten black Americans to register to vote in Selma's Dallas County.

Later, with her husband Samuel W. Boynton, Amelia helped to educate and raise the standard of living for the African-Americans in Dallas County. The couple worked tirelessly to help the poorer population, who were mostly sharecroppers, to register to vote.
 
Losing her husband to a series of strokes, Boynton carried on their work throughout the 1960s. Her home became a hub for civil and voting rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The strong opposition to Boynton's efforts in voting rights led to the organization of three marches across the Selma's Edmund Pettis Bridge in 1965. Police used their nightsticks and tear gas on the crowd, including Boynton.

"I can truly say that throughout my entire life I have never been fearful of anything or anybody," Boynton says. Her courage in the face of physical harm was immortalized in a photo of her from that day, unconscious and near death. The photo was picked up by the news media, traveling across the nation and then the world, rousing great support for the civil and voting rights movement.

The same year that Boynton was nearly killed for her part in the struggle for voting rights, she found herself at the White House along with other civil rights leaders as the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson. After seeing the continued violence in Selma, which led to the deaths of two protesters, Johnson had quickly presented a bill to Congress that became law in August. The Voting Rights Act prohibited the unjust practices used to prevent African-Americans from registering to vote.

 "After having worked so hard since the thirties trying to get people registered to vote, particularly blacks who were denied that right, I felt as if the day had finally come where people of color would have a better life and a say-so," Boynton says.

Boynton, often called the "Mother of The Voting Rights Act," wants to make sure that young people today know they also have a "say-so." She returned to Savannah this year to speak with students at Johnson and Beach high schools as well as Savannah State University, reminding them of their power to direct their own lives.

"Your mind is the only one you have, and if you don't use it, somebody else will," she says.

As her 100th birthday draws nearer, Boynton also has clear ideas about her longevity. Though she has exercised and eaten nutritiously her entire life, the first advice for long life that she offers is spiritual.

"Trust God in all you do and believe in yourself," she says. "That spirit, that 'good' filters through your being. You won't have the stresses and upset that ages you if you truly believe that God is walking with you."

She has taken her own advice several times, not only in the tense situations of the civil rights movement, but also when she was in a boat that capsized in the Atlantic Ocean.

"I looked towards the heavens and spoke to God," Boynton recalls. "I said 'I have too much to do to drown,' and here I still stand."

A painting dedicated to Amelia Boynton was donated to the Country Inn & Suites in downtown Savannah. The artist is Gilbert Young. The painting resides in the hotel's newly anointed Amelia Boynton Room.
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