Amelia Boynton Robinson, “Working for Civil Liberties,” National Visionary Leadership Project
A Story from Here
Long before the Selma-to-Montgomery march, S.W. and Amelia Boynton were organizing for change. In the spring of 1929, Amelia Platts arrived in Selma to start a new job as the local home demonstration agent. The Negro Extension Service employed Black agents to bring better farming and home care methods to rural African Americans, a difficult task in Dallas County where 87.7% of Black farmers worked as tenants on white-owned plantations. County agent Samuel William “S.W.” Boynton picked her up from the train station.
Traversing gravel backroads and muddy plantation paths, the two saw how sharecropping and threats of violence kept Black people desperately poor, afraid, and brainwashed. When S.W. and Amelia got married not long after, the Boyntons became a driving force to secure land ownership and voting rights for Dallas County’s Black residents.
From their third floor office in Selma’s Black business district on Franklin Street, the Boyntons mounted campaign for first class citizenship that would stretch over decades. They founded the Dallas County Voters League (DCVL) to register more Black people to vote and challenged segregation in Selma’s public schools in a local NAACP chapter after the Brown v. Board decision. When SNCC field secretary Bernard Lafayette arrived in 1962, hoping to start a voter registration project, he joined forces with the work the DCVL was carrying out from in the Boyntons’ office.
In May 1963, S.W. Boynton died from a series of stress-induced strokes, and Lafayette used his memorial service as Selma’s first mass meeting, explaining,“We put the two things together because that’s what he stood for.” On the night of May 14, 1963, 350 black residents gathered at Tabernacle Baptist Church to honor Boynton and his legacy of voting rights. A year and a half later, Amelia Boynton invited Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Selma to help stage a nationally-geared struggle for voting rights.
Selma was the economic and social center of the western Alabama Black Belt. The cotton grown on sprawling Dallas County plantations provided livelihoods for the wholesale grocers, farm implement dealers, bankers and attorneys who governed the city. But by 1960, cattle had displaced cotton, along with many Black sharecroppers that had raised it. The gospel of land ownership preached by the Negro Extension Service secured economic independence for some rural Black families, while Selma University and established Black churches and businesses gave Black residents a modicum of self-sufficiency. White business leaders, set on attracting outside industries, attempted to foster a moderate, peaceful image of the city’s race relations. However, Selma was the first city in Alabama to organize a chapter of the Citizens’ Council, counting the mayor, councilmen, the probate judge, bankers, and businessmen among its ranks. The rougher, more outspokenly racist Sheriff Jim Clark assembled a baton-wielding posse to deal threats, and his violent opposition to black registration attempts helped bring Selma to the attention of the nation in 1965.
Amelia Boynton Robinson, Bridge Across Jordan