The image of Amelia Boynton Robinson knocked out cold by white troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965, during the protest march from Selma to Montgomery, is one of the most frightening and iconic photos of the civil rights movement. It shows a mature woman, her coat and gloves reflecting a certain elegance, with her head thrown back with the lifeless abandon of the concussed as a panicked young black man holds her torso up in his arms. Despite the melee and confusion, someone was thoughtful enough to preserve her dignity, by placing a coat across her splayed legs. Nevertheless, the release of the photo confronted the country with a necessary question: What kind of nation unleashes this violence against its own citizens—against middle-aged women dressed in church clothes who simply wish to exercise the right to vote?
Boynton Robinson’s pain compelled our nation to face itself. Months later, she was present at President Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the legislation that came to be regarded as the crown jewel of the civil rights movement, and she continued her civil rights activism until her death this year, at the age of 104.