Phillip Chambers Jr. was only 12 years old when he attended the March on Washington with his grandfather in 1963.
The police dogs and national guard were scary for a pre-teen, as were the counter-protesters yelling racial slurs. But hearing some people traveled from California in a school bus illuminated how important the moment was for Chambers, his family and thousands of Black Americans.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech that day — a clarion call for racial justice and unity — has resonated for decades. Chambers holds the words close to his heart, he said, sharing that teaching with his children and grandchildren. But 57 years later, progress is still a work in progress. The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and the recent shooting of Jacob Blake at the hands of police have brought racial justice and police accountability to the front of American politics yet again.
He remembers his granddaughter saying to him recently, “I thought the police were supposed to help us, granddaddy, not kill us.”
Along with Annapolis and Anne Arundel County leaders, Chambers gathered in The People’s Park in Annapolis on Friday to mark the 57th anniversary of the March on Washington to reflect on progress and the actions necessary to realize King’s dream. “Foot soldiers,” people who attended the march 57 years ago, were recognized for their work alongside young organizers from Anne Arundel County.
“This is the generation that can realize the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King,” said Jacqueline Boone Allsup, president of the local NAACP. She called the moment a crossroads in American history. Young people have organized protests and rallies across the country.
Allsup and other leaders — including County Executive Steuart Pittman and Annapolis activist Carl Snowden — implored residents to vote in the upcoming election to participate in the movement. The gathering on Calvert Street took place not only on the anniversary of the March on Washington but on the anniversary of the murder of Emmett Till eight years prior, in 1955.
Allsup called the actions following Floyd and Taylor’s death as the “largest civil and human rights movement in history.”
“Black Americans are still bearing the same hardships that have plagued us for decades,” Allsup said. “We will continue the peaceful and radical work of Dr. King until systemic racism is dismantled in this country. It is our responsibility to use our power to help abolish systemic racism.”
Pittman, who spoke at the event, drew comparisons of the foot soldiers who marched in 1963 and activists marching in 2020.
“These are everyday people who are volunteering their time, risking their personal safety, and in some cases, putting their own livelihood at risk by aligning themselves with a movement that many in power were describing as a threat,” Pittman said. “As we look back on the March on Washington, most Americans realize that it was a unity march. It was good Americans reminding one another of the values that make America strong, and that make all communities strong. It was about justice for all.”
Maryland Policy & Politics
Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley echoed the importance of young people in the civil rights movement of the 1960s and today.
“I see eerie parallels today — I see it in our own city — young people fed up with injustice they see in everyday American life,” said Buckley, who has attended and spoken at Black Lives Matter rallies organized by young residents in Annapolis over the summer.
Though it doesn’t always feel like, he said, progress is still possible.
At the event, Chambers sat in the middle of a sea of socially distant white folding chairs. He wore a black t-shirt emblazoned with an illustration of George Floyd’s face. He said the past few months have been frustrating and hurtful. Explaining what is going on to his young grandchildren has been challenging.
The right way to change will be through education and voting, Chambers said. School systems need to include or improve lessons teaching the history of Black people. That will prompt better understanding of the diverse community in the United States, and hopefully, better treatment, he said.
After William Rowell, senior adviser to the mayor, read an excerpt of King’s speech, Chambers was honored alongside two dozen other Anne Arundel foot soldiers. Some were in attendance, some did not attend due to the coronavirus pandemic while others have died.
Here are their names:
- Judge George Robert Ames, Jr.
- Marc Apter
- Elmo Carter
- Phillip T. Chambers Jr.
- Alma Cropper
- Lawrence Diggs
- Robert Duckworth
- Frank Dunbaugh
- Larry Griffin
- William Hayes
- Philip Hunter
- Arlene Jackson
- Bessie Knight
- Edith Knight
- Alva Sheppard Johnson
- Kathleen Johnson
- Patricia Johnson
- Thornell Jones
- Jack Lahr
- Jean Langston
- Raymond Langston
- Aliceteen Mangum
- George Trotter
- Stuart Wechsler