Lessons from Lawrence Guyot

Civil rights activist and American hero Lawrence Guyot died a few days ago. I did not know Mr. Guyot but I felt like I did and I learned a lot from him and his colleagues in the Civil Rights Movement. I was born in 1977 over a decade after the Mississippi Freedom summer took place but throughout my teens and now through adulthood one of my passions has been to read about the Civil Rights movement. Numerous times I’ve just been amazed at the courage and determination of the Civil Rights workers in the South in the 1950s and 1960s but it’s something about the Freedom Summer and the work they did that really makes me look at with great awe.

There have been several obituaries in the Afro.com, the Washington Post, and other publications about Mr. Guyot and his noble work. What has always impressed me is the methodical process backed by an unwavering spirit followed by civil rights workers to achieve what many believed to be an unreachable goal of full enfranchisement and equal rights for African-Americans in Mississippi and across the South. The Mississippi Freedom Summer is a model for non-violent social change that we all should learn about, follow, and implement including in the DC Statehood movement, a cause that Mr. Guyot was a valiant supporter and leader in.

Civil rights workers in Mississippi Freedom Summer followed a process of education, organizing, and activism to break the chains of segregation and voter suppression in Mississippi. Civil rights workers canvassed the state of Mississippi to educate disenfranchised African-Americans on their rights about the law and citizenship. When needed these workers would take the time to teach Mississippians to read and write to improve their lives and help them pass tests that were often given when registering to vote. This type of education took time and would never occur at a rally or in a mailer. This type of education involved individuals putting their lives on the line to teach and to be taught.   The commitment to teaching and learning by all involved in the Mississippi Freedom Summer is a model that we too should follow. Here in the District we need to spend more time reaching out to our friends and neighbors and engage them in conversations about why Statehood is right and just and why all other measures come up short and keep us unequal. Too often we preach about Statehood but we don’t teach about it. Too often we tell people what to think but fail to ask what they think. We need to learn how to teach and to be taught and only then will we learn how to turn knowledge into action.

As organizers the Mississippi Freedom workers were brilliant. Their educational activities helped them create a base of Mississippians who already demonstrated a yearning for justice simply by agreeing to learn. Family after family slowly joined the Freedom Summer as they found comfort in seeing their neighbors join the cause. And as one student from out-of-state travelled to Mississippi to join the Freedom Summer others soon followed their classmates to Mississippi to be a part of something greater than themselves. The civil rights workers articulated a clear goal derived from the people of Mississippi to those they worked with that made both Sharecroppers and the privileged children of the Ivy League join together in the same struggle for equality despite the risks and sacrifice needed.

The DC Statehood movement has yet to paint this picture clearly for those in the District and those out of the District to unite behind. While many do see it as an issue of fairness and equality others don’t. Some see it only through a partisan lens while others (yes, you Steny Hoyer) would rather prevent a commuter tax that have 638,000 Americans treated equally. So while the disenfranchisement in Mississippi was cruel, stark, and gut-wrenching we here in the District need to better make our own case to create a united front of supporters from Mississippi, to the Ivy League, to Deanwood, Brookland, and Palisades. If we educate others properly and if we listen as necessary we will be able to paint that picture that’s clear for all to see that our present state is unjust and unsustainable and statehood is the only clear path forward.

And finally, the activism of the Mississippi Freedom summer was brilliant. The civil rights workers organized a mock vote for African Americans in Mississippi to prove that the population wanted to vote but were simply denied the right to vote. And later they took on the Mississippi and National Democratic Parties by forming the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in direct challenge to the racist party apparatus that would rather save face and keep power than do what’s right. They made their fight public and shamed a party that supposedly was committed to equality. While they didn’t win each battle on the first round they made their case to a national audience in such a profound manner that the writing was on the wall for both Mississippi and the Democratic Party: Equality was on its way in! The imagery of their activism is what made it so successful. The DC Statehood movement has been hijacked by some who aren’t even fighting for statehood and others who seem at times to just be fighting for attention. As the Mississippi Freedom Summer showed us it’s not about how many marches or protests you have rather it’s how you execute them that makes them effective. We have a lot to improve upon in this realm within the statehood movement but there is a world of possibilities on how to bring world attention to the fact that the people living in the shadows of the U.S. Capitol are denied full and equal representation within it.

I never met Mr. Guyot but I feel like I knew him and have learned a lot from him, a fraction of which I tried to articulate above. Fundamentally though I’m a better person for having learned about Mr. Guyot and his work and we’re a better country because of his life’s work. Mr. Guyot knew, however, that the work for justice and equality is not over and that it’s something we all have to work and struggle toward but it’s worth the effort. Mr. Guyot lived a good life and he helped create a process for all of us to follow to make the work more loving and more just. Mr. Guyot dreamed of and worked for DC Statehood and now it’s time for us to make his dream and ours a reality.

Thank you for a life well lived Mr. Guyot.

Josh Burch

Follow On Twitter: @JBurchDC

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