The Rev. Annie Chambers is a mother of the Civil Rights Movement who, at 79 years old, is still fighting. (Courtesy Photo)
By Micha Green
AFRO D.C. Editor
Not many mothers or fathers of the Civil Rights Movement are around to share their memories, reflect on their contributions or say they have witnessed major fruit of their labor. However, Baltimore activist, the Rev. Annie Chambers was so young when she started that, not only is she alive to tell the stories, but insists that God has ordained her to stay in the fight for justice.
“I’ve been in the movement since 14 years old… Great deal of my life and I’m still blessed to be able to do it. I’m still in the struggle and fighting for people- that we will have a decent life. That’s my ordaining,” Rev. Chambers told the AFRO in an exclusive interview.
At 79, she is still a firecracker with a lot of fight, and if her long career in activism is not enough for her to want to continue standing for peace and justice, her 25 birth children, 298 grandchildren, great grandchildren and great-great grandchildren and more than 200 adopted children of the Movement, definitely are.
“I’ve been blessed,” Chambers said. “These are the blessings. Moses had lots of children, Abraham had lots of children, so God let me know, ‘I’m blessing you with children, your grandchildren are your wealth,” she explained.
However, like in many instances, Chambers’ rain of blessings seemed abundant after trials, challenges and the activist sowing seeds.
Born in Richmond, the daughter of a minister and former Catholic nun, (her mother was the governess for her widower father and his children) Chambers has always had a relationship with God. However, life experiences cemented the faith that led her to ordained ministry and activism to this day.
Number 19 of her parents’ 22 children, Rev. Chambers became a mother at 12 years old and was married by 14; the same year she entered into the Movement. She moved to Baltimore as part of an escape from the horrors of adolescence, but life’s challenges never stopped her from getting into the battle. And, it was God who sustained her for the long road to fight for justice.
“When I finally gave up and listened to the Lord, I knew why he ordained me, because you can do things your way, and I did for a while, I was marching, I was out there in the battle fighting… a Black Panther… but when the Lord, when you do it his way, that’s altogether different.”
God’s plan for Rev. Chambers kept her in the streets as the key place of her ministry.
“I go up under the bridge and speak to the homeless, I go to the prisons and I speak to the prisoners and work with the prisoners. I work on several committees to try to get people out and reconnect families of prisoners. Those are some of the things that I know I have to do as a minister and now I know those are the things I was ordained for. Fighting for what’s right and what the truth is out here every day, for all people. I’m a Black woman, proud to be a Black woman. I know why God put me here, but we must understand that we are all God’s creation and so I fight. I fight hard,” Rev. Chambers explained. “And people say to me, ‘Oh you just talk about Black lives.’ I say, ‘Yes I talk about Black lives because we’ve been so beat down in this society and this country,” emphasized the activist who has now been in the struggle for 65 years.
And many of the anecdotes she’s collected along the way serve as experience-based lessons and inspiration for the hundreds of young activists that follow in the Baltimore-based activist’s footsteps.
As a young activist, Chambers had to deal with the politics of her time, which only served as distractions for the determined demonstrator. Chambers’ brother, James X, who inspired her activism, served as a lieutenant for Minister Malcolm X, and would come home sharing stories that made her interested in attending protests. However, her father was reticent about her protesting as a young, married woman and mother. But he relented and allowed her to attend her first rally at 14 and unbeknownst to her family, she was two months pregnant with her second child. Though her brother tried to protect her from the danger of the demonstration, she made her way to the front, a moment that cemented her connection to the movement.
Marriage, babies and politics did not stop the activist. Chambers said she actually birthed one of her children on the road to the March on Washington.
“We were on the outskirts of Washington. We went down into a ditch, me and my buddy, and I had that baby. The ambulance came and cleaned me up and turned me over to D.C. General,” she said. Her father later came and got the baby, and Chambers said she “went on back to the march.”
Chambers was also instrumental to the Poor People’s Campaign. “I was one of the original people in Tent City, helped build it. I was one of the women in the Welfare Rights, when Dr. King came to us and asked us to help him put together the Poor People’s Campaign because he didn’t know,” Chambers said. “I tell people, most of these guys weren’t poor. They were Black, but their families had money. Dr. King’s daddy was a middle-income preacher, as far as I was concerned. He was doing alright. When Dr. King went down there from Atlanta to Mississippi and in the Bayou and saw people living like that, he didn’t believe human beings were living like that.”
“ came and asked us, and at first we started not to help him because he didn’t help us. We were out there fighting for welfare and we said, ‘Where were you Dr. King?’ And we talked, but we knew we had to do it. So we helped put it together- very much advising him. And I was all up in the mountains, West Virginia, all up in Appalachia, traveled all up there bringing poor people to Washington,” Chambers explained further.
With her activism and mothering, Chambers still found time to go back to school after not finishing when she got pregnant as a young girl; eventually earning a master’s degree.
In her ministry, Rev. Chambers also uses her maternal gifts as she mothers the hundreds of people who have looked up to her for years as they begin their own journeys with justice seeking.
“I tell the young people who strive to be leaders, ‘Humble yourself,’” she said. “If it’s a homeless person, if it’s a drunk, if it’s an addict, humble yourself to that person, then you can humble yourself to God,” she said.
She also has advice for faith leaders. “All the faiths, all the religious people, need to get together now. This is the time,” the ordained minister said. “It ain’t about . It’s about making change in this system, about people getting treated fairly and decent in this system.
The almost 80-year-old activist also shared what she continues to stand up for to this day.
“We’ve got to fight for education, housing and jobs. Those are the basic things we need to make this society work,” Chambers said, explaining that addressing these issues could help in solving the crime challenges that plague Black communities. “We’re not using the right tools to fight the crime.”
As a former squatter of 2206 Guilford Avenue, who ultimately lived there for 47 years; and as someone who was able to benefit from higher learning later in life, Chambers said she is particularly focusing on squatter’s rights and education.
“If you don’t have education you;’ll never move up in society. If you don’t have a home you won’t have stability.”
She said it was her education that gave her the ability to pinpoint and help address challenges affecting Black people daily; and said she has been blessed to understand the tools necessary to truly make a difference in her community.
“God blessed me to get a master’s degree. He transformed me even more by highlighting what’s going on and how I can fight better for poor people. So we’re not using the tools. Until we use those tools, we’re going to continue to have the crime, we’re going to continue to have the problems that we’re having,” Chambers said. “That’s my fight every day.”