Guyot Memorial Service Rocks Civil Rights Style

Barrington M. Salmon | 12/18/2012, 9:23 p.m.

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."