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Guyot was in the forefront — and sometimes in jail — as

Mississippi blacks sought political equality in the ‘60s

(Published April 23, 2001)


Special to The Common Denominator

Lawrence Guyot, bottom center, and other civil rights activists await their release from a crowded jail cell in 1962 after they were arrested while registering blacks to vote. At far left, partially obscured, is former Ward 1 councilman Frank Smith.

Lawrence Guyot, at far right, and other student activists for civil rights join hands and sing at Tougaloo College in Mississippi in 1962. Woman at left is Victoria Gray, another leader of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

Guyot strategizes at the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s office in 1965.

One of the primary functions of the 1964 Freedom Summer was to build the membership of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party using the student volunteers who came south for the summer. With this grass-roots party, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee hoped to challenge the all-white Mississippi delegation at that summer’s Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. Lawrence Guyot was elected chairman.

Historian Michael Sistrom says Guyot was by no means a singular leader. He was, in fact, far less visible and influential in many ways than the other state executives, especially Fannie Lou Hamer, Victoria Gray and Annie Devine.

Because he was arrested during a demonstration shortly before the Atlantic City convention, Guyot was unable to participate directly in the challenge to the Mississippi delegation.

While Guyot sat in jail, the MFDP women soared.

The party’s goal was to be recognized as the legitimate delegation by the national party. Although the national party did not seat them on the convention floor, the benefit of their efforts would be reaped four years later in Chicago.

SNCC, however, wanted faster and more concrete results than participatory politics could provide. As a consequence, the MFDP soon splintered away from SNCC.

Harry Bowie, the Delta Ministry leader who worked closely with Guyot on building the MFDP in the post-SNCC years, credits Guyot for courage in moving the party out of SNCC control.

"He may not have always been right, but he had a passion for the truth as he perceived it," Bowie says. "He was willing to stand alone."

Meanwhile, Guyot worked to bolster grass-roots support for the party. It supported and trained candidates for local office, and Guyot himself ran for Congress as an anti-Vietnam candidate in 1966.

As he and Bowie pursued the political end, Guyot enlisted a young lawyer named Armand Derfner to tackle the legal end.

Derfner was just a few years out of Yale Law School when he became the MFDP’s attorney. With Guyot as "the engine" driving the legal challenges forward, Derfner wound up successfully arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1968 to broaden the Voting Rights Act.

"In Guyot, there is a road map of the political system," Derfner says. "He has the vision to see connections" between the different political venues, whether electoral, legislative or legal.

At the same time, the MFDP was developing a cooperative relationship with the Loyalist faction of the state’s Democratic Party. The Loyalists, which included the NAACP and the Young Democrats, joined with the MFDP to challenge the all-white delegation to the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

While the streets of Chicago throbbed with protesters and police, Guyot played poker in a hotel room high above the fracas. For once he was not in the thick of the conflict.

"It was very clear to me that this was not the time to be in the streets, not for the Mississippi delegation," says Guyot. "I had a choice to make, either get in the streets and know that I’m going to get arrested or do what I could on the convention floor."

While the Loyalists had the financial and political resources to lead a challenge, it was the MFDP that had developed the credibility with the press and the national party after the Atlantic City affair. The Credentials Committee recognized the MFDP/Loyalist coalition as Mississippi’s legitimate delegation.

Guyot says that "tremendous" victory "demonstrated the (MFDP’s) ability…to operate at any political level, at any time, in any form, (and) on our own terms."

Copyright 2001, The Common Denominator