Lawrence Guyot, civil rights activist and interviewee for Eyes on the Prize, died this week at age 73. Guyot was involved in several civil rights groups beginning in the 1960s in his native state of Mississippi. He began working in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1962, and was heavily involved in the activities of Freedom Summer in 1964, and was the founding chairman of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), a group which included fellow activist, Fannie Lou Hamer. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s goal was to have African American delegates included in the Democratic Party. The challenge was rejected but the Fannie Lou Hamer spoke on national television and brought attention to the plight of African Americans in Mississippi.
Along the way, Guyot endured beatings, threats, and violence. Mississippi was notorious for the amount of violence against civil rights activists and Guyot was arrested while trying to bail Fannie Lou Hamer out of jail after she and a group had entered a “whites only” section of a bus station in Winona, Mississippi. When Guyot arrived to bail out Hamer, he was arrested and beaten severely for many hours. He was only released after Medgar Evers, a fellow activist from Mississippi, was murdered in the same time period.
Guyot was interviewed for Henry Hampton’s series, Eyes on the Prize in 1979. Guyot spoke about his work with Amzie Moore, Bob Moses, Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, the incident in the Winona jail, and how he became politically active through his father’s efforts to register people to vote. In this quote from his interview he described the strategy of Mississippian civil rights activists during the campaign to register African Americans,
We had recruited new people and had brought them into the fold. We were organizing in Greenwood. We were catching hell in every form. People being arrested. People were being threatened. People were bring kicked off farms. People were being beaten. People were being fired if they even associated with us. But despite all of that we were able to get people to go down and attempt to register to vote in the Delta where there’d been a whole history of violence and deprivation and peonage really. It wasn’t slavery but it certainly was peonage…we conducted the freedom election and one of the lessons we learned from the freedom election in 1963 was that the FBI was very, very concerned about providing protection and public cover to all of the volunteers who were white, who were northern and who were well, relatively well-educated. We learned pragmatically that the way to bring protection to our people was to bring whites in. We wanted to bring the national attention to what we were doing, to protect people who we could not protect—we never lied to anyone—we never said come register to vote with us you won’t get shot, you won’t get fired from your job, your social security won’t be cut off. It—despite the fact that social security is a federal payment, a federal fund, I saw a notice in the social security check sent out from Jackson, Mississippi, that a warning to everyone—if you register to vote, your check can be cut off. The pervasiveness of that state in preventing political activity even of that nature was so complete it is very hard to recapture for people who wasn’t [sic] involved in it.