CLEARWATER — A sea of teenagers dressed in blue poured onto the sidewalk at the base of the Memorial Causeway Bridge Tuesday morning, armed with megaphones and conviction.
They had seen other kids speak up before — in history books recounting the civil rights movement, in Tallahassee after the 2018 school shooting in Parkland. Now it was their chance to do the same.
“We are the children,” they chanted. “The mighty, mighty children.”
More than 800 students from Pinellas County’s 16 traditional high schools snaked up and and over the bridge, marking the area’s inaugural Unity Walk. Months in the making, the event was planned entirely by student ambassadors from Clearwater High, and aimed at celebrating the impact of those who have fought for equality and human rights, as well as inspiring a rising generation of leaders to do the same.
The 2.5-mile walk followed an assembly inside Clearwater High’s auditorium, where students heard from Lynda Blackmon Lowery, the youngest person to march for civil rights across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in 1965. She was invited by the student ambassadors, whose predecessors she met five years ago during their class trip to her home city.
Now 69 and the author of a book about her experiences, Lowery recounted on Tuesday the horrors of growing up in the Deep South as an African American, being beaten by police and jailed nine times before turning 15. She urged students to do as she did and push for what is right, even when it isn’t easy.
“You have power," she said. “Use your power. ... Use your voice.”
After her talk, students piled into buses that took them to Clearwater Marina. “Guys, this is really it,” 19-year-old ambassador Maleah Goolsby said as students peered out windows, giddy to start the eastward walk toward Coachman Park.
Seeing it all unfold was overwhelming for Javante Scott, an 18-year-old ambassador who helped spearhead the event. What started as an idea between a couple classmates in the fall had turned a massive happening in the middle of his city. He looked around to take it all in as news reporters buzzed around him.
“In 1965, they didn’t have the freedom to be able to cross a bridge,” he said, referring to the march in Selma. “Now we live in a world where we do. … And 55 years later, we’re marching to continue the conversation they started ... and inspire the future generation.”
Scott said the event wasn’t sparked by the country’s growing political division or any particular incident, just a general desire by student leaders at Clearwater High to inspire others to remember where the nation has come from and spur conversation about where it’s going.
The ambassadors take a civil rights-focused trip each year through the southeastern United States, which they plan and raise money for themselves. They visit sites such as the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., where Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, and 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., which was bombed by white supremacists that same year.
Standing in those places was so much better than history class, said Goolsby, one of the ambassadors who went on the trip last spring. “Reading in a textbook, you don’t get the same feeling."
So the group decided to find a way to “bring back home to other kids the feeling and knowledge that we gained," Scott said. Their teacher Mark Powers was all in, as was Clearwater High principal Keith Mastorides. They encouraged the students to meet with school district leaders to lay out their plan for the walk.
“It’s been a whirlwind experience,” said Powers. “It’s been so inspiring seeing these kids do something they believe in.”
Oluwadamilare Ogunleye, a 16-year-old ambassador, said he has “never felt so official.” Adults took him and his classmates seriously, he said, and that made the event feel like a big accomplishment.
“We did this,” he said, then raised a megaphone to his lips to start another chant.
“We are the children."