Army Attorney Remembers Civil Rights Revolution
March 24, 2008
ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. (Army News Service, March 27, 2008) - Phil Hunter sometimes reminisces about friends, family and others he met during the cultural revolution known as the civil rights era.
He and his family witnessed the injustices of racism first-hand, living in Selma, Ala., in the 1940s. In a town of about 28,000, with the majority of the residents being black, Hunter and many of his generation were no longer willing to sit back and let things be.
Aca,!A"Back then, the local whites expected a 13-year-old black boy to be obedient and subservient to their wishes, whatever that may have been. I and my contemporaries were anything but that,Aca,!A? said Hunter, the team leader of the Acquisition/Business Law Team and contract attorney for the U.S. Army Research Development and Engineering CommandAca,!a,,cs Office of Chief Counsel.
Aca,!A"My generation didnAca,!a,,ct go along with that mentality. A core group of us did things differently, a little bit ahead of our time,Aca,!A? said Hunter, a soft spoken man who doesnAca,!a,,ct look his age of 61. Aca,!A"While others were very fearful, we were attending mass meetings and rallies.Aca,!A?
Armed with a firm foundation in right and wrong and the courage to speak out, Hunter didnAca,!a,,ct back down in his quest for equality.
His grandparents were raised in rural communities where they were self-sufficient land owners, and as such they had a certain amount of independence. They passed their ways to HunterAca,!a,,cs parents and they to him.
Aca,!A"That sense of independence combined with their religious beliefs made them fearless and unafraid of the consequences of their actions,Aca,!A? he said. Aca,!A"They acknowledged the danger in their actions (rebelling against the system). My father wasnAca,!a,,ct a loud mouth rabble rouser, but he was outspoken and very diplomatic.Aca,!A?
HunterAca,!a,,cs father was a local minister and the editor of the Selma Citizen, the only local black newspaper. Hunter and his brothers had the responsibility of selling papers and often were kicked out of local establishments for doing so.
Aca,!A"I started selling those papers back when I was in the fourth grade. I had no idea of how important they were and didnAca,!a,,ct realize until later that they didnAca,!a,,ct want us to pass along information about blacks and their rights to other black people.Aca,!A?
HunterAca,!a,,cs father also served as the president of the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chapter in addition to his pastoral duties,
Aca,!A"You have to remember, back in the 40Aca,!a,,cs, it was not a popular organization to be a part of. I often wonder why my father wasnAca,!a,,ct killed as he was outspoken and very active,Aca,!A? he said.
His father and others in the community fought for equality on numerous issues but the most important one was the right to vote. In later years, his father would serve two terms on the Selma city council.
The black population in Selma and Dallas County was more than 50 percent at that time. Many of the black farmers in the area were prosperous. Hunter said that combined to create a desire for local whites to keep voting rights from blacks.
Aca,!A"If you have the numbers, and you have the finances, you would have the power to affect the vote and put into office those you want to elect. They did not want that to happen.
According to Hunter, in order to ensure blacks were not part of the voting process, local whites would administer literacy tests Harvard Law School graduates could not pass; the Aca,!A"jelly beanAca,!a,,c test (guessing the number of jelly beans in a jar) or require a poll tax or other illegal methods to reduce the number of registered African-American voters. They were successful: there were less than 100 registered black voters out of approximately 14,000 African-Americans.
Aca,!A"My father was having meetings in Mr. Doyle and Mr. ShannonAca,!a,,cs Barbershop planning strategies. I knew they were doing something secretive and at the time I didnAca,!a,,ct appreciate the magnitude of what they were doing.Aca,!A?
What they were doing was laying out the groundwork for Hunter and his fellow demonstrators.
Aca,!A"We marched and demonstrated all the time, picketing and boycotting stores that didnAca,!a,,ct treat blacks fairly. There were a lot of friendly merchants who were still boycotted because they were part of the system. There were many white merchants who were empathetic to our cause but we had to show economic strength,Aca,!A? he said. Aca,!A"We werenAca,!a,,ct just marching for voting rights; it was for every facet of the society that we were demonstrating against.Aca,!A?
Mental images of billy clubs, water hoses and barking dogs developed as Hunter described what he called his most damning experience.
Aca,!A"A bunch of us spent two weeks at Camp Thomasville in Alabama. We were demonstrating for the right to vote, and after we were arrested the judge wanted us to sign a statement of probation saying we would not participate in any demonstrations for five years. If we violated it we could be put in jail. Our leader said no to sign it and we didnAca,!a,,ct. So they put us in jail,Aca,!A? he said. We were never charged with an offense and we were never found guilty of violating any law. Stroking the grey hairs on his chin, he continued.
Aca,!A"Jail might not have been so bad. Because there were so many of us, we were held in a cow pen. It was winter time and we slept on the floor. The only thing we had were the clothes on our backs -- no blankets, quilts, nothing. We never took a bath during that two week period either. You can only imagine how we smelled when we got out. The food wasnAca,!a,,ct worthy of a hog. A lot of folks refused to eat but after a couple of days hunger took over. I wasnAca,!a,,ct a big guy when I entered but when I got out my belt moved a couple of notches to the right,Aca,!A? he said.
The threat of imprisonment, the harsh sting of billy clubs and the physical abuse from law enforcement officers, the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups were not enough to keep Hunter and others from continuing on their path.
Aca,!A"Back then it was unpopular in the black and white communities to be involved in civil rights. Now most everyone is pro civil rights. Back then because of the danger of being involved you had to, in essence, be clandestine until later in the Aca,!Eoe60s with the mass rallies and meetings.
Aca,!A"Every time you went to march, demonstrate or move around, your life was on the line. There were a lot of people killed that we donAca,!a,,ct even know their names because they stood for what they believed in,Aca,!A? he said. Hunter bowed his head and was silent a moment before continuing.
Aca,!A"I participated in most of the marches and demonstrations in Selma during the early Aca,!Eoe60s. The most famous one was the March from Selma to Montgomery. There were two attempts and a third successful one,Aca,!a,,c he said. Aca,!A"We were tear-gassed and beaten with clubs, cow prods, chains, etc., on the first attempt, generally referred to as Aca,!EoeBloody SundayAca,!a,,c. The second occurred on March 9, 1965-- we crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, prayed and returned to Brown Chapel AME Church. The third one occurred March 21 and we walked to Montgomery (over a five day period), a 50 mile trek.Aca,!A? Less than 100 Marchers were allowed to march the full distance, due to traffic issues, possible snipers and limited police protection, Hunter said.
At this point Hunter was attending mass rallies and meetings, pushing the issue of equality and justice along side the likes of Hosea Williams, John Lewis, James Farmer, James Bevel, Andrew Young, Julian Bond, Jesse Jackson, Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and many more unsung heroes.
Aca,!A"As a young person I stood in awe of Dr. King because of his presence, popularity and great oratorical skillsAca,!"I was very shy in his presence and didnAca,!a,,ct ask him a single question. He did however, sign my Freedom Diploma,Aca,!A? he said pointing to the framed document between black and white photographs from the 60s that adorn his office walls today.
A government lawyer for almost three decades, Hunter is proud of his past and present accomplishments.
Aca,!A"IAca,!a,,cve had to move around to move up in my federal career but itAca,!a,,cs been a blessing, the moves have been a positive experience. IAca,!a,,cve outpaced a lot of my contemporaries and I consider myself blessed. The thing now is to make sure those coming up behind us have the tools they need.
Aca,!A"ItAca,!a,,cs critical for us to share our knowledge and information with younger employees. Mentoring is not about race or gender. ThereAca,!a,,cs an obligation on all of us to help those coming up as we interface with them. Whether itAca,!a,,cs a letter of recommendation, sound advice or steering them to the right college, profession, etc., itAca,!a,,cs the right thing to do. Here in 2008, I try not to look at color. I canAca,!a,,ct avoid it, but it doesnAca,!a,,ct determine if I help you or not. IAca,!a,,cll help anyone. ThatAca,!a,,cs how itAca,!a,,cs always been. You help everyone you can. You canAca,!a,,ct be an advocate of hate.
Aca,!A"I was, am and will always be an advocate for fair and equal treatment of all peopleAca,!"irrespective of color, race, gender, etc.Aca,!"ItAca,!a,,cs in my blood and I canAca,!a,,ct help it. Stand up for what is right and what you believe in. In doing so, few may stand with you but you can stand yourself.Aca,!A?