Uncommon Valor from the Mississippi Mud

If there ever was an unsung symbol of courage, bravery–valor–then Lawrence Guyot is just such a symbol, who deserves the accolades and praise of an entire generation. He’s just that special.

It’s not often that you will hear these words together in a sentence: “I am a native of the Mississippi Delta who grew up in South Central Los Angeles, and I lived in the best of both worlds.”

I came to learn two things about my home state that pertain to our honoree, Lawrence Guyot, both of which make me admire him that much more.

The first is that Mississippi is really three states, not one. There are the lush hills of Central Mississippi. There is the Tropical Paradise of the Mississippi Gulf. And there is the flat, hot agricultural Delta region in the north of the state.

But truth be told, everywhere in Mississippi is still Mississippi. There are ghosts of martyred Black men and boys in every pond, in every creek.

I hail from the Delta. That’s the place, you’ll remember from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s epic Uncle Tom’s Cabin where the hero Tom was sent, away from the “good slave life” in New Orleans with beignet and shrimp etoufee, “up-river” to the brutal Delta where he met the whip and the lash and the brutal overseer, Simon Legree.

I don’t know what possessed my Grandmother, Ollie Lee Hathorn and her husband Murray Canteberry to move from lush Winston County–Philadelphia, Noxapater, Vaiden–to Indianola, Ruleville, Itta Bena, Inverness–Sunflower County in the Delta. But move, they did in the 1920s. And although my mother, Nola Mae Canteberry was a 1940 graduate of Jackson College (now Jackson State), and worked wiring ships Rosie-the-Riveter-style in the Port of Los Angeles during World War II, she returned to the Delta when it was time for me to be born.

That’s why I say, I lived in the best of both worlds. We moved back to Los Angeles where I was bred, and required to acquire “Up South” reading and language skills, so I had no Mississippi drawl in my speech, attending California public schools. But every summer, instead of being left to wander the mean streets of South Central, where the Low Riders, the Slausons, the Spook Hunters, the Crown 40s, and the Businessmen–now the Crips and the Bloods–roamed, where I might have honed my Corner Boy-thug skills, I was sent “home” to Indianola to the care of my Grandmother and my Uncle Forrest Canteberry.

My last trip to Mississippi as a child with my mother was in 1961. She had just bought a brand new 1961 Mercury Comet. We drove down. I was 16 and even shared in some of the driving. We drove to visit relatives, Aunt Clara, Uncle Art, Aunt Minnie, Cousin L.B., Cousin Percy, in The Hills. That was the year “Freedom Riders” got on Greyhound buses and rode from Up South to Mississippi, intent on integrating interstate public transportation facilities. The nation was in the grips of a Second Revolution, and in Mississippi–where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s description of men whose lips were dripping “with the words of interposition and nullification” must have originated, the racist, White supremacy establishment was committed to “massive resistance” to all forms of desegregation.

My mother refused to go to the back door of the restaurant to get our food, marching right in the front door, while I sat terrified in the car. I knew some Ku Klux Klansmen would see our California license plate and, convinced that we were some more of those “outside agitators,” follow us into the hills where they would ambush us and make it look like an accident–like the “accident” that killed her sister on the highway from Indianola to Ruleville one night before I was born.

At the time I was terrified in my home state, Lawrence Guyot, was already well along the road in the epic struggle for Freedom, that we all know as the Civil Rights Movement. I salute him for not just his bravery, his courage–that is his strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty. But I salute Lawrence Guyot and those with whom he struggled, and those who he inspired, for his Valor: that is his strength of mind or spirit that enabled him to encounter that fearsome danger with firmness, and personal bravery.

That is important to me because of the other lesson I learned about Mississippi. That is: there were two types of Negroes who were successful in Mississippi.

The first group is the light-skinned, Negroes who inherited a little property or something from the White men who raped their mothers, and left them a little something when they transited on to Hell. The other group was the usually dark-skinned, shotgun-toting Negroes, about whom Whites whispered. “Just leave that Turner alone, ‘cause that nigger’s crazy.”

Well, Lawrence Guyot is from that first group. His was a prominent, politically connected family, from Pas Christian, Mississippi, in the Tropical Paradise part of the state. He did not have to raise a finger, let alone risk his life, fighting for freedom and justice for his people in that rebellious state, the birthplace of Jefferson Davis, where Senators Bilbo and Eastland all the icons of race-hate and demagoguery went to take lessons in terrorizing Blacks.

Lawrence Guyot did not have to continue that fight, co-founding with Miss Fannie Lou Hamer, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which shook the Democratic Party to its roots at the 1964 National Convention in Atlantic city.

Lawrence Guyot’s valor is commendable in any case, but his valor is uncommon, because he had much to lose, and so little to gain personally from his sacrifice.

I salute my Homeboy, Lawrence Guyot for his uncommon valor, uncommon valor in the Mississippi Mud!

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