Phil Portlock is a Washingtonian who with his wife, Pat Sloan, created a documentary on the history of African American voting rights. (Pat Sloan)

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.

“No matter what position you have, in a democracy if you don’t have the right to have your voice heard, you cannot really be considered a full citizen,” he said.

Voting is the way citizens — Black and White, young and old, native-born and immigrant — make their voices heard.

And then in 2013 the Supreme Court considered the case of Shelby County v. Holder, which sought to strike down parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

For 29 days, Phil and Pat held a vigil outside the court, urging the justices to leave the protections in place.

“We weren’t certain we could have any influence on the decision, but we felt since we lived here in Washington, it would be good if we had a presence there,” he said.

On June 25, 2013, the court declared that Sections 4(b) and 5 of the act were unconstitutional, relaxing federal oversight of jurisdictions with a history of voter suppression.

It would be harder to vote, but even more important, Phil and Pat decided.

They put together a documentary on how Black Americans gained the vote after the Civil War, saw it threatened by Jim Crow laws and violent voter intimidation, saw it protected by the 1965 act, only to see it threatened anew.

Phil delivered “Voting Rights: The Struggle to Be Counted” in libraries, churches and on campuses. When the coronavirus pandemic struck, he started offering his voter education seminar online. On Sunday night, there were six people tuned in, but there have been as many as 40, from all across the country. (You can find information at his website,

I asked Phil whether he still believes in voting, given what we’ve seen lately: the president throttling the Postal Service and casting aspersions on mail-in voting; governors fighting to reduce the number of late, absentee or mail-in votes that are counted.

Phil admitted that he sometimes despairs at the hypocrisy.

“Our nation goes into wars in places like Iraq and the purpose stated is to spread democracy,” he said. “We see the citizens with their purple thumbs: ‘I voted.’ We’ve taken democracy there but we haven’t done anything to promote it here.”

A week ago, Phil and Pat headed over to McKinley Tech to stand in line for early voting.

“You’ve probably heard of African Americans who say ‘I’m going to stand in line because of the ancestors,’ ” Phil said. “Our grandparents and parents, when they finally had the right to vote, they stood for hours.”

As it turned out, Pat and Phil didn’t have to stand for hours. The line moved quickly.

Earlier, Phil had told me that nobody tries to keep you from voting because they hate you. They do it because they fear you. They fear you because they think you’re different from them. They fear your voice. They fear your vote.

Said Phil: “Let’s prove them right to be fearful.”

Twitter: @johnkelly

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