Lawrence Guyot
Washington, DC. July 25, 2012

Interview conducted and edited by: Paul T. Murray

See also In Memory: Lawrence Guyot

Guyot began by describing his family's roots in Bay St. Louis on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

My grandfather and I read the newspaper together. His name was Jules Piernas. His mother purchased one of the original plots near Bay St. Louis [MS]. His brother, Louis Piernas, was a postmaster during Reconstruction and after Reconstruction. There were a lot of black and white families that were mixed. I was in the Piernas wing of the family. The white wing of the family lived right down the street from me. The Catholic Church had a large influence across racial lines. The Catholic Church's position was blacks should have the right to vote. We lived in an environment where blacks could register to vote freely. When whites ran for office they solicited our votes. What the church was doing, and the adherence of the people to it, and the absence of violence showed me that institutions could bring about social change.

His education at Tougaloo College launched his career as a Movement activist.

I didn't discover a problem with voter registration until I was seventeen and a student at Tougaloo, where I meet people from Holmes County and Leflore County, majority black counties, with one or two registered blacks. Then I joined SNCC. Then I joined COFO. Tougaloo was perfectly designed for me. I found the [Mississippi] laws on racism antithetical to my religious beliefs and to my chemistry. It [Tougaloo] was a place where I could exercise those beliefs. They took a firm position for desegregating its faculty and [had] a student body that was totally open. I met Martin Luther King for the first time in my life at Woodworth Chapel in 1957 at Tougaloo. I also saw A. A. Branch [dean of the college] turn members of the city council away from that meeting. "You were not invited. You'll not speak here. Please leave."

What Tougaloo means to me is Ed King, who becomes National Committeeman for the Freedom Democratic Party. There's John Salter who taught me all the socialism I ever needed to know. And Ernst Borinski, who was the people's philosopher. His gift was empowering me. He did that to lots of people.

I got as much religious liberation out of the chapel at Tougaloo as I would have gotten at any other church anywhere. This was a school about liberation, about empowerment, unabashedly so. It was one of two schools in the South that said and meant, "We support your right to participate in demonstrations, but take your books with you. If you go to jail, study, because we're going to test you just like we test everyone else." [The other school was Miles College in Birmingham, Alabama.]

While a student at Tougaloo Guyot joined SNCC.

In 1955 or 56, Wallace C. Riles, a local grocer and I invited Medgar Evers to come to Pass Christian. We did so because we wanted to see whether or not we needed help. In my mind I knew we didn't need help as badly as the rest of the state. We met with Medgar Evers right in the Odd Fellows Hall on the campus of Randolph High School. There were about twenty of us. Evers said, "You all don't have employment problems, you don't have racial problems, you don't have violence problems. You don't have any problems compared to the rest of the state."

We were heavily involved in civil rights activity in my town and in my family. I didn't join SNCC because of any particular individual. I looked at SNCC as a logical extension of what I had been doing for a long time. I loved SNCC. SNCC to me was bringing together young, intelligent, courageous, fearless, creative people. It was clearly a situation where everyone's opinion mattered. "You will not be written off." It fit my style. I discovered earlier, when the principal of my high school was being put out by a group led by my father and his friends, I got a chance to speak in support of him. I compared him to Babe Ruth building Yankee Stadium. Those people started crying. I discovered that I could influence people by speaking. SNCC was the logical thing for me. I had two things that were natural to me: SNCC and Tougaloo. Tougaloo was about total freedom, total enhancement of the freest of the free. If you're unfree, you're repressed.

Many of the Freedom Riders who were arrested in Jackson remained after their release and formed a nucleus of SNCC workers in the state.

To separate the Civil Rights Movement in Jackson and the Freedom Riders is to do the impossible. Dave Dennis, Charlie Cobb, MacArthur Cotton, Jessie Harris. We were the Civil Rights Movement. Peter Stoner comes down. He's a Freedom Rider. Peter Stoner lives today in Jackson. Ruby Doris Smith comes down. She becomes the Executive Director of SNCC. Dave Dennis is a Freedom Rider. Paul Brooks. Diane Nash, [James] Bevel. Bevel was in both SNCC and SCLC. Dion Diamond, Weldon Brusoe. These are all people that were part of the movement and Freedom Riders. We got a chance to plan with them, get them to help us raise money. Charlie Cobb comes through in about '63. He's on his way to Texas. He has a series of tickets in his pocket. I said "Charlie, don't leave. Stay here in Jackson, we'll teach you all the nonviolence you want to know." Charlie stays for five years. He tells people I kidnapped him. I didn't kidnap him. I just creatively brought him in.

Guyot described his work with SNCC in Greenwood.

John Doar [former Justice Department lawyer] speaking in 1987 said the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was written on the streets of McComb and Greenwood. Part of what he is saying is that in Greenwood we maneuvered the federal government into a position where they could really have gone for broke. [They could have] broken the back of Mississippi on voter registration. They had all the ingredients — but they didn't.

The reason they didn't is that they had just come out of the situation in Hattiesburg. You should read a book called Count Them One by One by Gordon Martin. Excellent book. It shows that they [Justice Department attorneys] were concerned about not sending [Forrest County registrar] Theron Lynd to jail. They wouldn't want him to die in jail and become a martyr because then the federal government would have to occupy [the county]. They felt the same way about Greenwood. They caved in on the question of really pushing [the local authorities when] they arrested us for voting rights demonstrations. The Department of Justice gets us out of jail, gets us released. The next question is "What kind of law suit are you going to file?"

He also recalled building the alliance between the National Council of Churches and the Mississippi Movement.

The head of the National Council of Churches heard me speak at the demonstration. He was impressed by that. I was making a comparison between voter registration and wanting to be baptized: no one can force you to be baptized, but you should want to be baptized; no one can force you to vote but you should want to vote. What comes out of that is the creation of the Delta Ministry which lasts for years and years. It also establishes a working relationship between the National Council of Churches and the Freedom Democratic Party. [In 1965] a couple of people [from the NCC] walk into the Washington office of the Freedom Democratic Party and say "How can we help on the congressional challenge?" Whenever we don't have an NAACP, CORE, or SNCC, [person] there's always the churches.

One of Guyot's most important contributions was his work with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (FDP).

The FDP took advantage of the fact that you don't have to register with a party to participate and vote in Mississippi; took advantage of the fact that the policy of the Democratic Party of Mississippi was total apartheid in every aspect of life. That was part of why they existed. The FDP was created to bring the country to light around total non-implementation of the 15th Amendment in Mississippi. We took the position that, number one, we had no Republican Party anywhere in the South — none. Number two, the total political empowerment, electorally, in Mississippi was Democratic. Number three, that translated into immense political power in the House and Senate, not only for Mississippi, but the entire South. So disenfranchisement was costly, both to the country and in Mississippi to those of us who were disenfranchised.

The Democratic Party in the state was really not providing services to white people, to the white poor. Their position was "We don't have country meetings; people might come there and want some changes made. They might want some policy implemented. You take care of this county; your cousin takes care of that one, and everything will be fine. After all, we only need to organize every four years. And all you need to do then is to put some people in the seats at the National Democratic Convention and say give us the right to cast our votes for president."

So it was a natural, everything we did involved getting people to understand that politics was their business; that politics was not simply for white people; that you need not know how to write in order to have the right to vote; that the powers that were used to prevent you from learning how to read and write were the same powers that said to you now, "Because you can't read and write you can't vote."

We were to be the party of the unrepresented. We were to be the party that fought openly for them and aligned with them. We were to be the non-religious church of the needy. We bring you the message that you can be part of your salvation. Everything we did was built around that. We were either litigating, mobilizing, educating, proselytizing, or coalescing.

Guyot explained how the FDP influenced one of the key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

We were the first (I'm proud of this more than anything else) to argue that illiterates should have the right to vote. We forced the Department of Justice to do that. When the Attorney General of the U.S., [Nicholas] Katzenbach, testified before the Judiciary Committee he said, "I'm sure everything in this bill is constitutional with one exception. I'm not sure it's constitutional for people who can't read and write to vote." Well, the Congress disagreed with him on that. We won that fight. No one else waged it, we won it. I remember speaking with the Department of Justice. [I told them] "We've got [illiterate] black people who run businesses, are members of the Elks, which requires a lot of memorization, a lot of discipline, so why should they be charged with something they didn't impose on themselves?"

Guyot reflected on the split between the FDP and SNCC.

We had to make a break with SNCC. And I'm very proud of the fact we made it. SNCC after 1964 was a spent force, God bless them. I love every one of them. In '64 SNCC came back from Atlantic City and said, "You know, we're too pure to be in politics. We questioned our foray into it and found them tainted." My position was, "We are fighting to be the Democratic Party of Mississippi. That means we're going to support the election of Lyndon Johnson."

The beauty of SNCC was its creativity, its courage, its ability to do things that no one else would dare think possible. Once SNCC started on the Freedom Election, the summer project, the [Convention] challenge in Atlantic City, it was very, very clear that we had taken everything that was possible for us to do together and turn it into a weapon.

When I describe to people the terror in Mississippi, they say, "Why didn't blacks leave?" I say, "Because of our religion, our culture, our resilience, our understanding that we created most of the wealth in Mississippi. We may not control it, but we created it. If it was possible for us to create some for them, maybe it's possible to create some for us." That's what I firmly believe. The bravest people ever born are those in Mississippi.

What SNCC was faced with after '64 was they had a choice. Be pragmatic, come back and help organize, empower the FDP, help spread it to other states, or say, "No, we're through with that. We're going to break with the Democratic Party and set up Lowndes County [Alabama], we're going to make sure it's SNCC. We're talking about independent politics. Our position was, "We're sincere in our fight to take over the Democratic Party. In order to do that we're going to support Lyndon [Johnson], Hubert [Humphrey], we're going to support the policies of the national Democratic Party."

We found that black and white people can work together. We found out that if we combined a good legal team with a very robust, indigenous, issue-oriented group of organizers we could do anything. Yes, we could challenge the congressional delegation; we could file the first private law suit under the Voting Rights Act — Whitley v. Johnson. It goes to the Supreme Court; it sets the record on what voting rights is; it stands today. They haven't killed it yet. John Doar files an amicus brief with us. When labor unions come to town, we work with them. We fight for the right of women to sit on juries. Women can't serve on juries in Mississippi until 1965. Nowhere in the South until '65. We are leading that fight.

One of the FDP's boldest moves was to challenge the seating of the Mississippi delegation to the House of Representatives in 1965.

The major thrust of that [the legal challenge] was the agreement made by Mississippi never to disenfranchise blacks when it was readmitted into the Union. That becomes part of our argument in the congressional challenge. We get 149 members of Congress to agree with us; that we should not seat the [Mississippi] congressional delegation. We came up with an idea, the idea was a memorandum signed by Martin Luther King, John Lewis, James Farmer, and the guy who headed the Welfare Rights Organization [George Wylie]. That memorandum said, "We understand there's the impending passage of the Voting Rights Act, but we do not think that passage of the Voting Rights Act and the removal of problems with voting in the future should justify the nonenforcement of the constitutional dictates of Section Two of the 14th Amendment, which is very, very clear. Section Two says if you disenfranchise people your congressional representation must be reduced.

That's all we're doing. We're not doing anything else. And we were able to get a guy named [Thomas B.] Curtis who was a conservative conservative from Missouri. He joined with us and supported the congressional challenge. It was Curtis on the day Congress voted who asked for a teller vote. A teller vote means that you can't just say Yea or Nay [each representative's vote is recorded]; he split the House up. There's a very clear record of who voted how. This astonishes Joe Rauh. Rauh has done everything he can to denounce the Freedom Democratic Party of Mississippi, and he doesn't believe we can galvanize real votes. Michael Thelwell informs him that we've got 149 votes.

At the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago the Mississippi delegation contained African American delegates for the first time. Guyot helped broker the agreement that made it possible.

The regular [all-white] Democratic Party decided not to desegregate. They were going to take one or two blacks which means the Hodding Carter, Aaron Henry faction [Loyal Democrats of Mississippi] was open to a deal with the MFDP, so I cut a deal with them. A lot of people in the MFDP didn't like it; a lot of people in SNCC didn't like it, but I knew that the country knew about MFDP. The country was prepared to seat them and if the MFDP was involved in a coalition with the loyalists, it would be seated. It was seated.

So when people say the MFDP wasn't seated in 1968, I say actually it wasn't, conceptually it was. To me, that was real politics. Do we take the purist route and say "No, we are too pure to associate with them," and not be seated; or do we coalesce with them? I'm very much like St. Augustine. St. Augustine said, "Make me change, but not yet." Politicians are unlike ordinary people. Ordinary people elect ordinary people. I'm stuck with the perfection wing now in Washington [D.C.]. We will tell them to go down to the Board of Elections and if any non-angels apply, to disqualify them. Until that day, the electorate will be represented by who we select.

Copyright © Paul Murray & Lawrence Guyot. 2012

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(Labor donated)