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The Foot Soldier Project for Civil Rights Studies
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FSP Unsung Foot Soldiers

William Madison Boyd 1916-1956

William Madison Boyd was born the seventh of eight children in Morehead City, North Carolina in April of 1916. His mother was a homemaker and his father owned U.S. Boyd Company, which shipped shrimp and oysters out of North Carolina. He attended public primary and secondary schools and spent one year at a North Carolina community college before being encouraged by a professor to move on to Talladega College in Alabama. While at Talladega College, Boyd served as president of the student body, the debate team and the college’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. As a sophomore at Talladega, he met his future wife, Betty Lewis (later Mapp), whom he courted throughout college. Boyd graduated from Talladega College in 1937 with a Bachelor’s degree in history and went on to earn a PhD in political science from the University of Michigan.  Boyd and Lewis were married in 1940 and would have two sons, William M. Boyd, Jr. and Robert E. Boyd.

In 1942, Boyd continued his graduate education in Europe with the help of the Julius Rosenwald Fellowship, an award he was granted for his work regarding the United States’ requirements for the independence of the Philippines. Five years later, he would return to Europe with the aid of the Carnegie Foundation to study the economic situations in England, Poland, Denmark, and elsewhere. In 1948, after teaching briefly at Fort Valley College, Boyd joined the faculty at Atlanta University as head of the political science department. Throughout this time he continued to contribute to the academic realm by publishing numerous journal articles, including “Southerners in the Abolition Movement” (1948) and “Southern Politics, 1948-1952” (1952). Perhaps his most important article was entitled “The Second Emancipation” (1953) on the May 17, 1953 decision of Brown v. Board of Education.  The article discussed the 14th Amendment, i.e. the first emancipation, and the decision, which Thurgood Marshall had identified as the second emancipation in a speech given soon after the Brown case was decided. Both Marshall, in his speech, and Boyd, in his article, expressed the need to, “continue the struggle with renewed vigor and without abandoning our objective” so that the second emancipation would be more successful than the first in leading to racial equality and racial justice.

Boyd’s participation in politics was not limited to his writings, however. He was also active in various political organizations, including the Institute on International Relations and the American Political Science Association. His work led him to make numerous public addresses at Swarthmore, Berea, Trenton Teacher’s College, and elsewhere. One such address took place at Columbia University’s Barnard College in New York, where he spoke on behalf of the American Friends Service Committee’s Race Relations Committee and was the first African-American speaker to address the students there. In a newspaper article written about the speech, Boyd expressed the hope that his speech would help race relations at the college and elsewhere saying, “If I do a good job, then they will get to know me as a human being.”  Boyd also spoke at a public debate on desegregation in Atlanta against attorney William Schroeder. At the debate Boyd expressed his belief that segregation was a violation of the 14th amendment, “a denial of equal opportunity,” and that the Plessy v. Ferguson doctrine of “separate but equal” schooling was outdated. He believed the constitution, as a living document, should thus be changed to fit the changing times, stating that, “equal opportunity can only be attained in the absence of segregation.” Boyd’s speeches, writings, and work with various political science organizations garnered him a favorable local and international reputation.

Boyd was well known in the southern states as being a fearless leader for civil rights and, according to one prominent political scientist, as “the big NAACP man in the southeast.” His widow, Betty Mapp, remembers him frequently working up to sixteen hours a day, often with NAACP national executive secretary Walter White, Thurgood Marshall, and Whitney Young. His motives were both personal and professional; as an African-American citizen himself, the rights granted to his race were of personal importance, while as a legal scholar, he knew that civil rights should have been granted to the African-American populace long ago. 

Boyd’s activism took place in the early years of the civil rights movement and was often fraught with danger, as was most civil rights work in 1940s and 1950s Georgia. Mapp claims this never stopped her husband, saying, “Way back in the1940s when it was dangerous to be talking about first-class citizenship and civil rights…Bill never bit his tongue. He said whatever he wanted to say.”  In Atlanta in the 1950s, Boyd used the black-owned radio station WERD, where he worked as a news analyst, to publicly urge the African-American population in the area to join the fight for civil rights and social justice.  Boyd was also involved in community development and voter registration drives for disenfranchised African-Americans. During his tenure as the NAACP State Conference president, which began in 1946 and lasted until his death in 1956, he was frequently found in various African-American churches across Georgia, urging congregations to register to vote. Boyd’s goal was to, “harness more of the middle class blacks in Georgia to support NAACP programs” and desegregation.

Boyd’s work on the Atlanta University campus was also of vital importance.  During his time as a professor, Boyd mentored many students, including Horace T. Ward, who completed his master’s degree at the university. Boyd had been looking for a student to challenge Georgia segregation in graduate-level education. While he had originally sought out Martin Luther King, Jr., Boyd moved on to Ward after King made it clear he wanted to enter the ministry. Ward wanted to become a lawyer and Boyd suggested he apply to the University of Georgia. Boyd quickly rallied the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund and famed attorney Thurgood Marshall to help Ward in his fight. While Marshall would be an important legal resource for Ward, Ward frequently cited Boyd as one of his most important mentors and sources of social support.

At times Boyd’s help seemed to risk Ward’s admittance as the University of Georgia’s lawyers sought to prove that Ward did not want to go to UGA but was merely being used by the NAACP in their quest for desegregation. Despite these false accusations, Boyd served as a personal and financial help throughout much of Ward’s trial. For sixty days, he organized a series of large NAACP meetings across Georgia to gather support for Ward. In fact, Boyd led the NAACP’s efforts to raise funds for Ward’s legal and travel funds throughout the trial, creating the Ward Fund in September of 1950. In his letters requesting funds, he showed confidence that they would be victorious, saying the money would go to support Ward’s legal fees, Thurgood Marshall’s travel, and to Ward’s law school tuition once the case was won.  Boyd’s letters also show his personal contributions to the Ward Fund stating, “I have had to raise the money almost alone by personal solicitations…. I have personally raised over $4,200 while the [NAACP] branches have raised $1,600.” He also garnered donations from various organizations, including a $1,000 donation from the Elks Lodge in Atlanta. Even after exhaustion finally forced Boyd to reduce his travel time, he continued his fundraising efforts through mail campaigns. These funds were indispensable to Ward during his battle against the University.

In 1955, Boyd became ill while visiting his parents in North Carolina. While he originally wanted to continue his frequent travels across the south, chronic headaches and a swollen spleen eventually sent him to a Boston hospital where he was diagnosed with Leukemia. Boyd fought for 18 months post-diagnosis before finally succumbing to the Leukemia on March 10, 1956—before the final Ward decision was handed down. Mapp believed his greatest regret was not spending more time with his sons. The NAACP, in a memorandum written in March 1956, stated that his death “leaves a great void in the crusade for freedom, justice, and equality.” Today Boyd’s work in both law and voter registration is remembered through the William M. Boyd Collection at the Auburn Avenue Research Library on African-American Culture and History, a collection of biographical information at the Robert W. Woodruff Library at Clark Atlanta University, and the William Madison Boyd Elementary School, all in Atlanta, Georgia.  

Maurice C. Daniels, Ed. D with assistance from  Michelle D. Black.