Civil-rights pioneer tells of 1950s efforts
One of the nation's eminent civil-rights activists was in Phoenix this week, lending his name to an old cause with a new cast: human rights.
Bruce Boynton, 74, an African-American attorney, became a national symbol in the fight for equality when he was arrested in 1958 for refusing to leave the Whites-only section of a restaurant in an interstate bus terminal in Virginia.
His case, Boynton vs. Virginia, led to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that his arrest violated the Interstate Commerce Act, effectively desegregating interstate transportation facilities. That inspired a group of men and women known as Freedom Riders to ride buses from Washington, D.C., into the Deep South to test the enforcement of desegregation in interstate-travel facilities.
Boynton this week attended several events hosted by TONATIERRA, a Phoenix human-rights group, to show his support for activism and share his experiences fighting for civil rights and defiantly disobeying desegregation laws.
"It's consistent with my professional life since law school that I have been an advocate for human rights," Boynton, an Alabama resident, said in an interview explaining why he accepted the invitation to visit Phoenix.
At various events this week, Boynton spoke out against Senate Bill 1070, Arizona's immigration law, and encouraged activists to fight discrimination.
"I had an opportunity to look at the law," Boynton said. "Coming from Alabama, which just recently enacted a very strict anti-immigration law, both of the laws have one thing in common, and that is the dehumanization of people."
In 1958, Boynton was a 21-year-old Howard University law student traveling home to Selma, Ala., for winter break when he sat in the White section of a restaurant in the Richmond, Va., bus terminal in direct defiance of segregation laws. It took the civil-rights fight in a new direction: from litigating cases of racial discrimination and segregation in the courts to directly confronting segregation laws, he said.
"I refused to move, which I knew was against the law," Boynton told a crowd of about 100 at a Thursday screening in Phoenix of the movie "Freedom Riders."
"My arrest on December 18, 1958, occasioned something that had not been done in the history of fighting racial segregation, racial discrimination in America."
The Freedom Rides in 1961 began with a group of 13 men and women riding in two buses. They were attacked and jailed. The movement expanded, eventually involving hundreds of riders traveling in various parts of the South. The riders were White and Black, men and women, whose occupations ranged from jazz musicians to ministers.
Boynton's wife, Betty, told one Phoenix group about her participation in Bloody Sunday, the first of the 1965 civil-rights marches from Selma to Montgomery to urge voting rights in Alabama.
Betty, then 15 years old, was sent to check for potential attackers at the bridge before the group of about 600 people started their march. She saw nobody and told the group the coast was clear, she recalled.
The group did not get far. The marchers were attacked by people in hiding who beat and tear-gassed them, she said. Betty, 63, recalled being pummeled, along with Boynton's mother, also a civil-rights activist, who had a rib broken.
Boynton on Wednesday shared his and Betty's stories with the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors.
"The knowledge of oneself and one's history is important," Boynton told the board, explaining his family's history of fighting for civil rights. He presented to the supervisors with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted in 2007, which prohibits discrimination against Indigenous Peoples.
Boynton was greeted with a standing ovation at Wednesday's board meeting, which drew various county officials and immigration activists.
"We've had this big immigration fight," said Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox, who invited Boynton to attend the meeting. "He so eloquently put in wonderful words that in America, anything can happen."
Nationhood and Sustainability
Bruce Boynton at the Carver Center
Bruce Boynton at the Carver Center
Have been put on reservations,
Our Nations are in the hood,
It’s done by robbin’
It brings the throbbin’
Of my heart up to my brain
And the thought
Of what ought
To be done
Is what I say,
Is what I mean:
It’s not about