Guyot Leaves a Void That Cannot Be Filled
Lawrence Guyot never encountered a fight he didn't relish and that willingness to put his body, ideals and life on the line is what those who knew him remember in the days since his death on Friday, Nov. 23.
Guyot, a renowned civil rights activist, died at his home in Mt. Rainier, Md., following a long illness. He is survived by wife Monica, two children, Lawrence III, Julie and four grandchildren.
The Mississippi native was one of the young foot soldiers – black and white – who fought to topple the centuries-old tradition of segregation and who faced down savage packs of white racists intent on maintaining the status quo.
"My best recollection is that I've known him since 1962 when I met him in Mississippi," said Ward 8 Council member and four-term D.C. Mayor Marion Barry – one of the students who heeded the call for freedom. We were revolutionaries in our own thinking who stayed in Mississippi until black people were empowered. Only three percent of the registered voters in Mississippi were black but blacks made up 42 percent of the population. Everything was segregated."
Barry, 76, said Guyot came to the District in the 1960s and worked on his mayoral campaign in the late '70s.
"A bunch of SNCC [Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee] people worked at the grassroots level," Barry recalled. "He worked in D.C. government but could not be contained by a 9-5 job. He worked for people at the city council and as an advisory neighborhood commissioner. He was an unsung hero. While a lot of people were all over TV, he was in the trenches."
Guyot became an integral part of the fabric of District politics and advocacy.
Denise Reed said she first met Guyot when she worked on Eleanor Holmes Norton's first congressional campaign in 1990.
"He was always a step ahead in everything. I can't tell the number of times he foretold something and a year later, I would say, 'He was right."' said Reed, a government employee. "When Tony Williams was chief financial officer, he said Williams was going to be our next mayor. A lot of times he would sit back and not say anything and when he talked, you got an earful. He was his own EF Hutton."
Reed recalled the long conversation she had with Guyot late last year when he regaled her and a friend following a PBS screening of "Freedom Riders."
"He talked a lot about his Civil Rights days," Reed said. "He touched on it when we met that night. It is a lesson to us all about oral history. I think what first comes to mind is he just wasn't afraid to speak his mind and he was always seeking to impart wisdom. He connected the past with [the present], so people would learn from it, gain strength from it, not forget and keep in mind the relevance of his experience.Whatever he said, I was always happy to hear."
Dorie Ann Ladner, a close friend of Guyot's and another of his Civil Rights compatriots, called him a fearless warrior in civil rights, housing, jobs and justice.
"He was a political animal. I'd call him every day and ask what was on the agenda," said Ladner, 70, who met Guyot as a teenager in 1961.
Ladner was a founding member of the Council of Federal Organizations in Clarkesdale, Miss., an umbrella organization which included Civil Rights martyr Medgar Evers, SNCC, the NAACP, the Congress on Racial Equality and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
"We launched 'Freedom Summer' and in the summer of '61, '62, I went home and told my mother I was going back to Jackson to get my freedom," she said.
Ladner said she met Guyot at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Miss., in 1961 when she was a sophomore and he was an upperclassman. She said she and her sister Joyce got involved with Freedom Riders "in the body of Diane Nash, James Bevel, Paul Brooks, and Marion Barry, who remained in Mississippi around the right to vote."
"When I met them, it was like Hallelujah. We wanted to get involved and those few of us went into Jackson to talk ... about our rights," said Ladner. "I asked Guyot if he wanted to go with us. We lived about 10 miles from the city limits. It was something he liked and he stayed with it."
Ladner said Guyot paid a horrific price in his fight for freedom and equality.
"He was in Parchment Prison at least two times that I know of," she said. "In Greenwood, he looked like one of the Somali refugees. He'd lost 100 pounds and had his head shaved. They turned on the heat at night, tortured them. Once, they had to jump out of a window in Greenwood. I often joked with him about how he got out the window because he was always robust, but he said 'you gotta do what you gotta do...'"
In 1962, Guyot began work with SNCC and two years later was named director of the Freedom Summer Project in Hattiesburg, Miss. He was also the founding chairman of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which sought to include African Americans in the Democratic Party's Mississippi delegation.
Ward 2 Council member Jack Evans (D), said he'll miss his friend.
"I knew him very well, he was a longtime friend," said Evans, who has served on the council since 1991. "He was always an activist in the community, stood up for the little guy and promoted justice. He was very much in that school."
Evans, 59, said he learned that Guyot was "beaten, hosed and dogged" and was very impressed with his activism.
"A sense of justice drove him from the beginning of his life," said Evans. "He was a good advisor on sticky issues. He would give me advice in the hallway or come to my office. I don't think a lot of people knew what he did. He did not get his due. I don't know what the comparable situation is, probably a soldier on the frontlines. He did his job, did it well. He deserved and deserves all the accolades."
Evans' colleague, Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), spoke fondly about the political environment of Rutgers University in the early '70s where the pair attended law school.
"D.C. and the nation have lost one of the Civil Rights movement's perhaps less well-known, yet enormously influential figures," said Cheh, 61. "Lawrence Guyot was a remarkable man, who made extraordinary sacrifices for voting rights and equality for all. Among his many contributions to our country's political and social progress, I am especially grateful for his voice in the D.C. statehood fight and his service to the District. Up to the last moments of his life, he appeared before the council and other bodies to argue for workers' rights and the rights of the less fortunate."
D.C. Mayor Gray also praised Guyot.
"With the passing of Lawrence Guyot, the District of Columbia and the nation as a whole have lost a stalwart champion of justice," said Gray, 70. "As a young student and activist in his native Mississippi, he was steadfast in his advocacy for guaranteeing Civil Rights and voting rights for all Americans. After Lawrence became a District resident, he continued that legacy of advocacy for enfranchisement, organizing and cheerleading for D.C. statehood."
Ken Fealing, former ANC commissioner and 49-year-old political activist, said he's deeply affected by Guyot's death.
"To me, he was the model of citizen activism," he said. "As a fellow ANC commissioner, I saw him as an intellectual giant for civil and human rights. His was a voice that we seldom hear today because of complacency and limited activism ... His energy, intellect, and voice was a model for citizen activism and citizen leadership."