On 17 July 1939 Lawrence Thomas Guyot Jr. was born in Pass Christian, the oldest of five sons of a domestic worker and a carpenter. He attended Catholic parochial schools before earning his diploma from Randolph High School in 1957. He then attended Tougaloo College in Jackson, graduating in 1964 with a bachelor’s degree in biology and philosophy. While attending Tougaloo, Guyot joined the struggle for civil rights and became a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
Working as a SNCC field secretary, Guyot helped register African American voters in communities across the state, including McComb, Greenwood, and Hattiesburg. Guyot and other SNCC members participated in a student-led march to the McComb City Hall to protest Brenda Travis’s expulsion from school and Herbert Lee’s murder. Guyot and other marchers were beaten and arrested. Out on bond, the SNCC workers organized and opened Pike County’s Nonviolent High, a freedom school for the students who refused to attend the public school to protest Travis’s expulsion.
After a fellow SNCC worker was attacked in Greenwood, Guyot was sent there to organize and register voters. While participating in a protest march, Guyot and seven other SNCC leaders were arrested and charged with disturbing the peace. He served a prison sentence, partly in Parchman. After his release, Guyot was notified that June Jordan, Fannie Lou Hamer, and several other civil rights workers were in jail in Winona. Arriving there to try to arrange the women’s bail, Guyot was again arrested and beaten. Other SNCC workers feared that Guyot’s life was in danger and persistently called the jail and demanded to speak with him. He and the others were released the next morning.
Guyot also worked for SNCC in Hattiesburg, where he directed the Freedom Summer Project in 1964. He organized a 1964 Freedom Day there that included registration of African American voters and a protest march, which resulted in another jailing. Though he was elected chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), he did not attend the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City with Hamer and other MFDP delegates because he was still in jail in Hattiesburg.
After his release, Guyot remained active in the party and led a group of students in a silent march to the Capitol in Jackson. Halfway there, the marchers were stopped by police, arrested, and taken to the state fairgrounds, where conditions were deplorable. Protesters continued to march and for several days, and by the end of the week, the number of arrests surpassed one thousand.
As SNCC members proposed an expansion of their work into other southern states, Guyot continued to champion efforts in Mississippi. He also supported white involvement in the movement at a time when other members of the Council of Federated Organizations were questioning it. After disillusionment with what many perceived to be the MFDP’s failure at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, Guyot left Mississippi to pursue other civil rights causes.
Guyot earned a law degree from Rutgers University in 1971 and went to work as a fund-raiser for Mississippi’s Mary Holmes Junior College. He then moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked first for Pride, Inc., and then for the US Department of Health and Human Services. Guyot remained politically active both locally and nationally until his death in 2012. He coauthored Putting the Movement Back into Civil Rights Teaching (2004) and appeared in numerous film documentaries about the civil rights movement in Mississippi, including Eyes on the Prize. His forty-seven-year marriage to Monica Klein Guyot produced two children.
- Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (1981)
- John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1994)
- History Makers website, www.thehistorymakers.com
- Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (1995)
- Howard Zinn, SNCC: The New Abolitionists (2002)