Few people have taken as many fists and gun butts to the head, kicks to the gut and hours of torturous treatment as Lawrence Guyot, an original civil rights soldier who continued struggling all the way up to his death on November 23, at the age of 73.
In the early 1960s, he worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, as a native son of Mississippi, and became the director of the Freedom Summer Project in Hattiesburg. He also was a founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party that courageously worked to change the state’s Democratic Party from exclusively white to inclusive of African-Americans. For his work in registering black people to vote alongside freedom fighters such as Fannie Lou Hamer, Dorie Ladner, Medgar Evers and June Johnson, he was bloodied and beaten by white police, sometimes within a hair of death.
The blood he shed, and his organizing around voter registration, is the clay from which the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was formed. Guyot was engaged to the end, and brought himself to vote one last time in this November’s elections, as he was battling diabetes and heart disease. Avis Thomas-Lester, executive editor of the black DC newspaper The Afro wrote in his obituary for Guyot:
After moving to Washington D.C., he continued to lobby for voting rights, becoming one of the foremost experts on the topic and a staunch believer that Blacks needed to be vigilant to ensure that their voting rights weren’t compromised. He watched in consternation and concern as state after state moved, by Republican machinations, to limit access to the polls for the November 2012 election and was elated that Obama was reelected despite them.
After Guyot’s death, Constitutional Accountability Center’s Doug Kendall and Emily Phelps wrote a post about why the Supreme Court should consider his legacy in their upcoming review of the Voting Rights Act. Wall Street Journal columnist James Taranto pounced on CAC’s argument, accusing them of romanticizing Guyot’s death and suggesting that the civil rights struggles of the past are irrelevant to the voting rights matter before the Court today.
Taranto concluded, “Paying tribute to the heroes of the past is entirely fitting, but clinging to the policies of the past is reactionary.”
But these heroes aren’t of the past, Guyot was fighting for voting rights all the way up to his last days, experiencing the benefits of that work in this year’s election. VRA’s Section 5 is under attack precisely because of its relevance. It was used in this election to back down voter ID laws in Texas and South Carolina that would have put hundreds of thousands of Latino and African-American voters at a disadvantage. It delayed a voter ID law in Mississippi to make certain it would not have a discriminatory effect there. This is not a policy of the past, it is ever-present.
As Kendall wrote in his response to Taranto, “On any faithful reading of our Constitution, Congress has the power of selecting the means of protecting one of our most cherished constitutional rights from racial discrimination.”