Baltimore-Washington Conference UMC (2024)

50 years later, still part of the movement


By Erik Alsgaard

Phillip Hunter greeted me at the door of his Bel Air, Md., home wearing a yellow shirt, a bow tie and crisp, new bib overalls. The overalls seemed out of place, given that Hunter, 67, is a retired lawyer and doesn’t live on a farm.

[caption id="attachment_46531" align="alignleft" width="216"] Phillip Hunter stands in his home office in Bel Air, Md. Behind him is a photograph taken in 1965 during one of the marches in Selma, Ala., his hometown. Hunter is visible standing between the American flags.[/caption]

But there’s a story behind the overalls, one that Hunter lived personally and one that he’s sharing these days throughout the state.

Hunter, you see, knows a lot about the 1960’s Civil Rights movement in Selma, Ala. He should know. He was born and raised there.

A member of Ames UMC in Bel Air, Hunter was born in 1947. He has vivid memories of segregated bathrooms, drinking fountains, schools… you name it. The governmental systems in those days were all white; the Ku Klux Klan was frequently active in the community.

His father, the Rev. J.D. Hunter, was a Baptist minister, the president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Selma, and a member of the Courageous Eight. The elder Hunter also was editor of the black newspaper in town, the Selma Citizen.

J.D. Hunter was harassed, going back to the 1940’s, said Phillip. “Because of his activities, my father was blackballed,” he said. “He couldn’t get a loan to support his business.” J.D. Hunter was also ordered to “cease and desist” all activities by the NAACP by none other than Sheriff Jim Clark, later notorious for his violent behavior on the Edmond Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965 – Bloody Sunday.

“My growing up experience in Alabama was good and bad,” Hunter said. “As you know, Alabama was highly segregated back then, more like Apartheid in South Africa.” Poll taxes, literacy tests and other schemes were put in place to block African-Americans from their right to vote.

Lines were clearly drawn between the races, Hunter said. Local law enforcement was anti-black. “If you stayed in your so-called ‘place,’ you had fewer problems,” he said, meaning “don’t interrupt the normal course of behavior.”

Hunter’s generation, though, wasn’t one to simply stay in their place. The Civil Rights Movement, Hunter said, was already at work before he was born, long before Martin Luther King, Jr., arrived.

“King couldn’t have come to Selma if there hadn’t been an organization already at work,” Hunter said.

In 1962 or 63, Hunter attended his first Civil Rights meeting in the basem*nt of his home church, Tabernacle Baptist Church. James Foreman and James Baldwin spoke. These meetings were the precursor to Dr. King’s coming, Hunter said. It was at that time that various marches were held throughout Selma, demonstrating for the right to vote and for integrating facilities.

1963 was also the year of the March on Washington. Hunter wanted to attend, but for lack of money to buy a $25 round-trip bus ticket, he didn’t go. His father also didn’t go.

At one of the marches, Hunter was part of a group that was rounded up and incarcerated for two weeks. He was 14 years old.

“They rounded us up and took us to the National Guard Armory in Selma,” he said. From there, they were shipped to Camp Thomasville outside Selma.

Hunter said that he and the others would have been released immediately if they had signed a statement that said, in essence, they wouldn’t march or demonstrate for five years.

“I didn’t read it fully,” Hunter said of the statement. “In essence, as young folks, signing that would have shut us down.”

At Camp Thomasville, people were segregated by gender, finger-printed and placed in cow pens. With no beds, people slept on dirt floors. The clothes they wore when they entered the facility are what they wore for two straight weeks. No baths were available and the food was watered-down mushy grits and fat-back bacon.

“Part of the strategy of the movement at that time,” Hunter said, “was to fill up all the jails in Selma. Make them pay to house us. We crowded out the jails in Selma, so they shipped us out to facilities outside the county.”

In jail, they sang Freedom Songs to keep their spirits up. The jail warden would get mad, Hunter recalled, but they would keep on singing: “We Shall Overcome.” “Can’t Nobody Turn Me Around.” “If You Miss Me From the Back of the Bus, I’ll Be in the Front of the Bus.” “Ain’t Scared of Nobody.” “Wade In the Water.” “Jesus On the Mainline.” “Freedom Train.”

After two weeks, Hunter lost 10 pounds. The group appeared for a hearing before Judge Reynolds, a die-hard segregationist, Hunter said. The smell was so bad that the judge ordered the bailiffs to spray deodorizing aerosol, but that didn’t help.

The judge, in the end, simply threw the group out of court. “Get on out of here,” Hunter remembers the judge snapped. Most in the group were juveniles and were never formally charged. Access to legal council was never available.

It was that experience that shaped the future of Hunter’s professional life. After graduating High School in 1965, he left Selma and went to New York to live with his brother, John Hunter, Jr., in a small, cramped rooming apartment.

“I caught the first thing smokin’ out of Selma,” he said, in reference to any vehicle with an exhaust pipe.

He entered Tennessee State University and then obtained his law degree from the University of Kentucky in 1973. “I wanted to fight injustice,” he said, “and to stand up for justice.”

See Phillip Hunter recite one of his original poems, “Stand Up,” written in 2007. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h2ov-Gw1cwo

Hunter entered the military, serving in the Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps. There, he represented men – black and white – that were not receiving adequate legal counsel, he said.

“Any time I saw some unfairness,” Hunter said, “I stood up for it. Sometimes it got me in trouble.” Many of his cases were won on appeal, Hunter said, based on the racist and unfair treatment of his clients.

After serving in the military, Hunter entered private law practice in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, practicing general law. He moved to Maryland in the late 1980’s, and has been a member at Ames UMC ever since, where he teaches adult Sunday school and is a lay speaker.

Hunter participated in all three 1965 marches: Bloody Sunday, Turnaround Tuesday, and the successful march from Selma to Montgomery. That makes him a “foot soldier.”

His memories of March 7, 1965, are still vivid. He has a certificate testifying to his participation, signed by Martin Luther King, Jr., framed and hanging in his home office.

[caption id="attachment_46532" align="alignleft" width="300"] The Diploma given to Phillip Hunter in May 1965, signed by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.[/caption]

They were briefed Bloody Sunday morning, he said, at Brown’s Chapel. Hunter and his marching partner were about one-third of the way back from the front, he said, and they made it across the bridge. Then the tear gas got them.

“We were being pulverized by the State Troopers,” he said.

Hunter tried to get back to Brown’s Chapel by swimming across the river, but the current was too swift and Hunter only knew how to do the dog paddle.

He eventually climbed back up the river bank and got across the bridge. There was a lot of confusion, Hunter said. People were being “patched up” and sent to the hospital. Hunter, himself, was unhurt. “People were angry and retaliation was in the air,” he said. “Some of the leaders tried to calm us down; others had other ideas.”

But the purpose of the march had been achieved.

“We wanted the world to see what was happening in Selma,” he said. “(Sheriff) Jim Clark was the main actor, and he acted in a violent way that day.”

After Bloody Sunday, King put out the call for supporters of the movement to descend on Selma. Whereas Bloody Sunday had 500 marchers, Turnaround Tuesday – where King led the marchers across the bridge only to stop, kneel and pray – had five times that many participants.

The rest, as they say, is history.

On March 7, 2015, Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush visited Selma to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first march. More than 40,000 people gathered to hear speeches and make a symbolic walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

One of those people was Phillip Hunter. “I wouldn’t have missed it,” he said. “It was a great honor to shake the president’s hand and to see the respect 50 years later. God has allowed me and others to survive to see the day when President Obama could get the votes and be elected that, in 1965, we could not imagine.”

Also that day, President Obama signed into law a bill that awarded the Selma foot soldiers the Congressional Gold Medal. Hunter is grateful for the recognition.

If you look at photographs from the 1965 marches, you’ll see some young black men wearing bib overalls. “That was a sign you were part of the movement,” Hunter said. “It’s what we marched in, demonstrated in.”

Hunter said that law enforcement caught on and if you were spotted wearing bib overalls, you were targeted as being part of “that group” and you were in trouble.

Hunter, you’ll recall, wore bib overalls for the interview for this story.

On purpose.

He’s still part of the movement.

Baltimore-Washington Conference UMC (2024)
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