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Harford civil rights 'foot soldier,' Selma march participant honored with Congressional Gold Medal

Harford civil rights 'foot soldier,' Selma march participant honored with Congressional Gold Medal
Phillip Hunter, left, stands with House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan last month when Hunter and others were honored with the Congressional Gold Medal for their roles in the marches for freedom in the South that culminated in passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. (Bobby Parker for The Aegis / Baltimore Sun)

Phillip B. Hunter, a retired attorney and Bel Air South resident, who took part in the famed civil rights march in Selma, Ala., in 1965, was recognized recently along with his fellow marchers as the Congressional Gold Medal was bestowed upon their group at a ceremony in Washington, D.C.

The CGM is the highest civilian honor Congress can give. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., presided over the Feb. 24 ceremony, which was held in Emancipation Hall in the U.S. Capitol Building.

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"It was one of the highlights of my civil rights involvement," Hunter, 68, said Tuesday.

Hunter is one of the Foot Soldiers of the 1965 Voting Rights Marches, the group Congress designated for the award. The Foot Soldiers were seeking full voting rights for African-Americans in the South.

They faced violent resistance from local and state law enforcement at the beginning of their march as they tried to leave Selma and cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge to get to the state capital in Montgomery.

Hunter was 17 years old and a student at R.B. Hudson High School in Selma when he participated in the march, which happened in March of 1965. Hunter and his fellow marchers were hit with tear gas and police billy clubs on their first attempt – it took three tries for the marchers to get across the Pettus Bridge and on their way to Montgomery, 50 miles east of Selma.

The first day of the march is known as "Bloody Sunday."

The late civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated in 1968, and John Lewis, who is a Democratic congressman from Georgia, were among the leaders of the Selma march, which led to the passage of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Hunter called Lewis "a very, very brave person."

"He was part of the movement and was right up front, so where there was some brutalization he received his share of it," Hunter recalled.

Lewis was among the estimated 200 to 300 people who attended the ceremony. Hunter's grandson, Phillip Elijah Hunter, of Philadelphia, got an autograph from the congressman.

"He was just awe inspired [during the ceremony]," Hunter said of his grandson.

Hunter was also accompanied by his wife, Yvonne, his son, Phillip N.R. Hunter, his brother, who came from Alabama, and various nieces and nephews.

"It was three generations there," he said.

Other congressional figures in attendance included Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., a Maryland native who is the house minority leader and a former House speaker, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who Hunter learned was born in Alabama, and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.

Frederick Reese, another leader of the Selma-to-Montgomery march, accepted the Congressional Gold Medal on behalf of the Foot Soldiers. Hunter said he and the other foot soldiers can obtain their individual medals from the U.S. Mint.

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Hunter moved to Harford County in 1989. He retired from Aberdeen Proving Ground in 2010 as chief of the Business/Acquisition Law Section in the Army Research Development Engineering Command, or RDECOM, Office of Chief Counsel, according to the news release.

He works as a federal acquisition law consultant. A member of Ames United Methodist Church in Bel Air, he serves the church as a lay speaker and adult Sunday school teacher.

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