Civil Rights legend and longtime D.C. community activist Lawrence Guyot spent most of his 73 years seeking to help usher in equality and unanimity between the races.
At a packed memorial service on Saturday, Dec. 15, the several hundred mourners at Goodwill Baptist Church represented a rainbow of colors and ethnicities, a fitting tribute to the man they came to honor.
Led by Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton and Mayor Vincent C. Gray, the standing-room-only crowd in the Northwest church consisted of luminaries, D.C. government officials, colleagues from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), civil rights warriors, Freedom Riders, family, friends and mentees.
Guyot died Nov. 23 and was buried in Pass Christian, Miss., on Dec. 8.
“Let me start with the simple truth. Lawrence Thomas Guyot Jr. was the bravest man I knew up close and personal,” said Norton, 75, who moderated the service. “Many of my friends and colleagues in … SNCC were arrested. Even I have been in jail. No big deal … But I personally saw what Mississippi jailers did to Guyot when I went to the jail in Winona, Miss., in the heart of the Delta. He almost surely carried those scars with him when Guyot left this world on Nov. 23. Yet, there were no scars on Guyot’s soul. It remained unblemished.”
Despite enduring the worst of the American experience, including time at the notorious Parchment Farm Penitentiary, Guyot was the most upbeat of human beings, Norton said.
“That spirit kept him ever-poised for the next fight. Yet, Guyot was born and raised in a state bathed in racial hatred,” she said. “Guyot’s Mississippi had not much changed since the Civil War. Blacks were supposed to adhere to its racial code – and to like it. Guyot abhorred it and lived to help bring down that code.”
Bernice Johnson Reagon, a social activist, former SNCC member and founder of the a capella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, provided musical accompaniment in between remarks, singing several Civil Rights standards and leading mourners – who stood holding hands – at the end of the service in “We Shall Overcome.”
The memorial afforded old friends the opportunity to reconnect, recall their shared past and reflect on the arc of growth in issues of race and society since they marched as young people for change. Guyot’s friends also talked about the need to remain vigilant because of fears that the Voting Rights Act which is now being considered by the U.S. Supreme Court might be amended or eliminated. Outside of Civil Rights, Guyot’s attention was always focused on the Voting Rights Act.
A succession of speakers, including Gray (D), Ward 8 Council member and former four-term mayor Marion Barry and activist and comedian Dick Gregory described Guyot as a force of nature who was impatient with indecision and hesitation and as someone used to bending circumstances to his will.
“I didn’t know Lawrence Guyot in the days of the Mississippi freedom fighting but I knew him in the District of Columbia,” said Gray, 70. “If he was half the person in Mississippi that he was in the District, I wouldn’t want to tangle with Guyot. He was resolute, he was clear, he was eloquent and he was brilliant.”
Barry, 76, called Guyot “an unsung hero” who brought a revolutionary zeal to everything he did.
“SNCC was formed in 1960 at Dr. King’s request in Raleigh, N.C. and there was not one student from Mississippi,” Barry recalled. “In 1962, blacks made up 40 percent of the population but only three percent of those were registered to vote. These were the conditions that Guyot was born into.”
“Guyot was up and down the highways registering people to vote,” said Barry, who told the throng that he was at the memorial “not as the mayor, not as ‘Mayor for Life’ but as a friend. “He had the courage, guts, tenacity and he had the feeling of freedom. I’m glad God gave me the strength and the courage to be a part of that movement. To lead in that kind of condition was not easy … this band of brothers, this freedom trust, knew that freedom is a constant struggle.”
When Guyot came to Washington, he brought with him the same fervor that served him so well in the Civil Rights movement, speakers said. He helped Barry win his first mayoral term in 1978 and worked in the administration.
“He said he wanted to work for me and we put him in the Department of Human Services but I knew then and there that I couldn’t put Guyot behind a desk from 9-5,” Barry said to knowing laughter from the mourners. “I told his supervisor, ‘don’t worry, don’t worry about him; he’s out there fighting for the people.’”
“Guyot, I love you brother,” Barry concluded.
Gregory had the crowd nodding their heads in agreement when he said a lot of people were surprised that Guyot died in his bed.
“I never thought he’d lie in bed and be attended to by doctors. We always thought that they would have killed him. This is one of the few funerals where we could speak the truth,” Gregory said.
Courtland Cox, a former SNCC field secretary, remarked on Guyot’s will, grit and determination.
“He was unrelenting and worked until the very end. Every day, Guyot faced being shot on plantations, on the highways and beaten as he actually was in 1963,” said Cox. “The terrorist tactics of the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens’ Council did not prevent him from doing his life’s work. It must be said at the end of the day, that Lawrence Thomas Guyot, Jr., led a consequential life and contributed to the common good.”
Civil Rights Activist Joyce Ladner said Guyot helped her to become more decisive and deliberative. While they studied at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Miss., Ladner called the institution “an oasis in the desert, a safe haven for those cast out” for their civil rights activities.
“We were discussing an issue and he got impatient. ‘Joyce, if we follow your logic, we’ll never do anything.’ I learned to take positions. He was decisive and never wavered. He was a passionate leader who went with his gut, a brilliant analyst with a mind that churned faster than most.”
Guyot’s daughter, Julie Guyot-Diangone evoked laughter when she said her lullabies were freedom songs and bedtime stories were of jailings, beatings and busing. She also wrote a letter which was read at the service. In it, she said doctors pronounced her father dead on April 13th, when he had the first series of heart attacks and as his kidneys began to fail.
“But, he had stuff to do. He wasn’t finished yet, and spent the next eight months confusing his doctors with his sheer willfulness, his determination to see things through,” she said. “It was the first time I got a sense of what everyone had been telling me since childhood about the strength of a man who endured so many beatings, daily death threats, and the tireless efforts he put forth with every step in the Movement.”
“The doctors shook their heads. They took his numbers. He just wasn’t supposed to still be here. But, the months passed and he continued to organize, ignoring the doctors and his own body. He was going to be the one to make the decision. And he left when he was ready to do so. Not a moment sooner.”