D.C. Man Fights to Educate Americans on the Importance of VotingBreaking News
tags: African American history, voting rights, radio, Washington DC, public history
On Sunday evening, Phil Portlock sat across from his computer in his Northeast Washington home, fired up Zoom and once again tried to save democracy from those who would destroy it.
It’s how Phil and his wife, Pat Sloan, have spent every Sunday evening since early August. Together, they’ve been remotely offering a whirlwind history of African American voting rights in the United States — and the recent threats to it.
“We are at a crossroads,” Phil said, colorful protest photos forming the background behind him. Our country is in danger of being torn apart, he explained. The only way to stop that is with a ballot.
Phil is 79. He’s retired from Metro, where for 29 years he was a photographer chronicling such things as the construction of the transit system. He hadn’t had his first camera very long when he went on March 31, 1968, to Washington National Cathedral to see the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver a sermon titled “Remaining Awake During a Great Revolution.”
Said Phil: “That sermon just touched me.”
Four days later, King was assassinated in Memphis. From the roof of his house, Phil saw smoke rising above H Street NE. Parts of his hometown were aflame. Phil walked through the city taking pictures and then got into his car and drove to the National Arboretum.
“It was April, so all the azaleas had just started blooming,” he said. “I had left a scene of tragedy and destruction and sought out some peace.”
Seeking peace — and seeding it — became part of Phil’s life. He became active with the Poor People’s Campaign. He became a student of the civil rights movement and the legislation that resulted from it: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.