Young faces abound in the throngs of local protesters who have gathered in recent weeks to mourn the death of George Floyd and push for an end to police brutality and systemic racism.
But sprinkled throughout have been people in their 60s, 70s and maybe older, marching alongside the others through the streets of Tampa and St. Petersburg. Some are out marching with face masks; some are not. Some say they are setting an example for their grandkids; some bring the children along to the marches.
Other seniors are supporting the effort from the home front — unable to meet the physical demands of marching or protecting themselves from the coronavirus. Churchgoers are sending prayers to those who march. They’re tired, some say. The fight has been long, and it’s time to pass the baton.
Where does the older generation fit into the local fight for justice after some of its members helped sow the seeds of its beginnings more than five decades ago?
Here are a handful of Tampa Bay seniors, each supporting the movement in his or her own way.
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One of the older faces at the many Black Lives Matter protests in St. Petersburg has been Bahiyyah Sadiki. The 68-year-old often takes her granddaughters, ages 7 and 8, downtown to participate in the action.
Sadiki isn’t worried about the virus-related health risks. She runs half marathons for fun and teaches Zumba six days a week.
She doesn’t wear a mask to rallies. A mask is basically a screen door, she said. Smoke and debris get in anyway.
For Sadiki, protesting is about setting an example for her community. The retired Gibbs High teacher also organized a rally in St. Petersburg in support of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed 25-year-old African-American man who was fatally shot near Brunswick, Ga., in February.
“That’s my hometown where he was shot,” she explained. “When that occurred, of course it struck home.”
So on Mother’s Day, Sadiki gathered everyone she knew for a march. She made signs and organized the route around Lake Vista Park.
“This is something that everybody needs to be involved in,” she said, “and when young people see everyone out there, it makes them in it to win it.”
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Peggy Land has seen Tampa grow since Dale Mabry was a dirt road.
“I have always been saddened by how blacks have been treated in the South,” she said.
The 86-year-old white woman has never been a part of a rally, but she has been one to speak out. Land is an active member of the South Tampa Dems and donates to local causes.
She’s recovering from a fractured femur and can’t protest. So on June 13, she watched a group march down from Fred Ball Park from the window of her apartment on Bayshore Boulevard.
“I would like to check it out,” she said, but she wouldn’t want the participants to focus on her injury and keeping her safe.
Instead, she goes to Tampa City Hall and works for justice that way. She attends City Council meetings and talks to legislators about ways to help the community. She wants to help get new housing in East Tampa, she said, adding that there’s plenty of available land there on which to build.
“I think it’s been time for change. It’s been heavy on my heart for years,” she said.
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Bill Grimsley isn’t out protesting, but he still catches a glimpse of the movement through his Bradenton window as the protesters march through his neighborhood.
“At 67, it’s really not my fight,” he said. “It’s for the young people.”
Grimsley was part of the civil rights movement in the 1960s and ’70s. He attended rallies to push for the integration of the Woolworth lunch counters and remembers the days of segregated water fountains.
“It’s been 50 years now, and we’re still fighting the same fight,” he said.
But one thing now is both different and promising, Grimsley said. Now, more young whites out marching alongside the black protesters.
Most seniors don’t go out into the fight because they don’t want to get hurt, he said. And with the coronavirus, he’s staying in anyway. He’s not going to stores or risking crowds.
Seniors need to play the role of education, Grimsley said.
“A lot of the younger people don’t understand where we come from,” he said. “We have to educate our youth so that they can be aware of how many people died so that they have a right to vote. How many people died so that they have a right to go to integrated schools?”
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For 29 years, Pastor Clem Bell has lead Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church in Dunedin. His congregation is almost entirely black, and so is he.
Dunedin has been slow to change, he said. Bell remembers convincing the city to name a street and a community center after Martin Luther King Jr. He believes that everyone should fight for their freedom.
So the 70-year-old pastor has been attending rallies.
“It doesn’t matter what group you’re in,” Bell said. “Older people matter, their lives matter. They’re often neglected.”
But the journey has been long, Bell said, and some of his parishioners prefer to fight from home. They’re tired, he said.
“Blacks know that, in society, you have to fight twice as hard or three times as hard to get the same recognition,” he said.
He said he encourages those who don’t feel comfortable among the crowds or who are tired of taking to the streets to pray for the people at the rallies.
“If we’re gonna make any kind of progress, we gotta have the Lord in it,” he said.
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Connie Burton was raised in a public housing development in East Tampa. The 65-year-old has lived in the community her whole life. She’s well known in the local fight for civil rights.
Burton speaks up at Tampa City Council meetings. She reminds Hillsborough County commissioners that they need to spend the community’s money on the people and areas that need it most.
And lately, she’s been protesting. Burton spoke before a group of Black Lives Matter supporters on June 14.
“When we say black lives matter, I say it with the sense of understanding that we have to destroy every institution that has worked against our interest,” Burton told the crowd of about 100. “Every one.”
Burton wants change for her six grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
Depending on the night and the protest, Burton said she sees varying numbers of older people marching Tampa’s streets. She understands the risk of contracting the coronavirus, but said it’s worth it.
“I feel like the storm of injustice is greater than that,” she said. “If we just abandon the work without making a significant dent, it would be in vain.” She feels a responsibility to help young people get the job done.
The civil rights movement stalled after the 1960s, she said, and the system didn’t change.
“We didn’t do enough,” Burton said. “Had we done enough, our babies and people wouldn’t have been caught up in the mass incarceration or they wouldn’t become victims of police violence.”
For a while, Burton said, she worried about who would take the baton of social activism after her generation. Now, she knows it belongs to the young people who have raised their voices in the streets, formed coalitions and found friendship at marches.
“I feel joyous to be a part of this history,” she said. “I am so glad to be living right now.”
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Coverage of local and national protests from the Tampa Bay Times
WHAT PROTESTERS WANT: Protesters explain what changes would make them feel like the movement is successful.
WHAT ARE NON-LETHAL AND LESS-LETHAL WEAPONS? A guide to what’s used in local and national protests.
WHAT ARE ARRESTED PROTESTERS CHARGED WITH? About half the charges filed have included unlawful assembly.
CAN YOU BE FIRED FOR PROTESTING? In Florida, you can. Learn more.
HEADING TO A PROTEST? How to protect eyes from teargas, pepper spray and rubber bullets.