Obituary: Lawrence Guyo fought for justice in Mississippi

  • Article by: HAMIL R. HARRIS , Washington Post
  • Updated: November 26, 2012 - 9:07 PM

Lawrence Guyot

Photo: Rogelio V. Solis, Associated Press

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WASHINGTON -- Lawrence Guyot, a leader in the civil rights movement, lawyer and community activist who fought to empower the poor and disenfranchised from his native Mississippi to the District of Columbia, died Nov. 23 at his home in Mount Rainier, Md. He was 73.

He had a heart ailment, his daughter, Julie Guyot-Diangone said.

As a civil rights activist in Mississippi in the 1960s, Guyot endured arrests and beatings as he fought for voting rights and political representation for blacks. He showed courage by standing up to authorities who had beaten and, in some cases, killed civil rights workers.

Guyot began working for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1962 and became director of the 1964 Freedom Summer Project in Hattiesburg, Miss. He was the founding chairman of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which sought to include blacks among the Democratic Party's delegates to the national convention.

In one of the bloodiest chapters of the civil rights movement in Mississippi, Guyot and others, including Fannie Lou Hamer, were arrested by law officers in 1963. They were severely beaten in a Winona, Miss., jail.

In testimony after the beating, Guyot said he had gashes on his head, was bleeding from his nose and mouth, and was bruised from his chest to his lower legs. Later, he recalled in a 2007 interview with the Washington Post, he was taken from his cell and shown to a group of white men gathered behind the jail.

"Now you know what he looks like," he said the jailer told the crowd. "You can take care of him whenever you find him." The door to his jail cell was left unlocked, but Guyot knew that if he attempted to escape, he would probably be killed.

Dorie Ladner, a Washington resident who was a civil rights activist in Mississippi at the time, saw Guyot soon after he, Hamer and others had been released from jail.

"His face looked like a piece of raw steak," Ladner said. "He was convinced that they were going to kill him, but Medgar Evers had been killed that night, and they let him and four women go."

Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia's delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives, first met Guyot in Mississippi within days of the beatings in Winona.

"Because of Larry Guyot, I understood what it meant to live with terror and to walk straight into it," Norton told the Post in 2007.

On Friday, she called Guyot "an unsung hero" of the civil rights movement. "Very few Mississippians were willing to risk their lives at that time," she said, "but Guyot did."

In 1964, he helped lead a demonstration by members of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, challenging the credentials of the all-white state delegation. Their challenge was rejected, but Hamer spoke before a national TV audience at the convention, drawing attention to the plight of black Mississippi residents.

By 1968, Guyot had full credentials to the national convention as a member of the Mississippi delegation.

Lawrence Thomas Guyot Jr. was born July 17, 1939, in Pass Christian, Miss. He graduated in 1963 from Tougaloo College in Mississippi with a bachelor's degree in biology and chemistry.

He graduated from Rutgers University law school in New Jersey in 1971 and moved to Washington, where he worked as a legal counsel for various city agencies.

Among Guyot's later battles was working to have the civil rights documentary "Eyes on the Prize" -- for which he had been interviewed -- re-released after its initial 1990 telecast.

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