40 years of seeking justice
A 1967 shooting brought riots to Tampa. A proposed federal law may reopen the case.
By NICOLE HUTCHESON
Published July 26, 2007
TAMPA - After 40 years, his death still haunts the city.
Martin Chambers was 19 when he was shot in the back and killed by a Tampa police officer in 1967, sparking days of riots in the city's predominately black neighborhoods.
A state attorney deemed the shooting justifiable. A subsequent investigation at his family's behest in 1990 reached the same conclusion.
But family matriarch Janie Bell Chambers continued to seek justice for her son. She staged protests and held vigils at his grave. She died in 1996, but her efforts haven't.
The Chambers family now sees new hope for their case in an action before Congress.
The Emmitt Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Act would appropriate $100-million for prosecutors and federal agents to revisit murders from the civil rights era. The bill, named after a black teenager killed in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman, was approved almost unanimously by the House last month. The Senate will take up the issue in the coming weeks, and President Bush has expressed support for the measure.
Today, the Chambers siblings, Jeffery Collins-King Chambers and Sabrina King, and family advocate Marzuq Al-Hakim will go before the Tampa City Council to ask the group to send Martin's case to the U.S. Justice Department for investigation.
"This case has been a cloud over the city," said Collins-King Chambers, 53. "We feel like this is a new era in time and a chance for the city to do the right thing."
There are signs that he may be right.
While the city has never admitted wrongdoing in the case, last week a mayor's advisory committee moved to name a room after Martin Chambers in the Kid Mason Recreation Center on Orange Street. The center, which will sit across from Perry Harvey Sr. Park, will focus heavily on the city's African-American history.
City Council member Thomas Scott said he supports the family's request.
"It would be a good gesture on the part of the council, this is an issue that's been out there for 40 years," he said. "The family has suffered and they have not had any closure on this issue. ... This is a way to bring some closure."
To this day, many in the Tampa Bay area see the shooting as a pivotal point in matters of race in the city. Before the shooting, discrimination against poor blacks and whites was largely accepted. But after the shooting and subsequent riots, white leaders had no choice but to at least consider the discontent mounting in the city's black housing projects.
"The power structure in downtown Tampa took notice and did put some resources into the neighborhood, but not much followup happened," said Al-Hakim, 50, a paralegal who has been working with the Chambers family since the '90s.
Riots lasted 3 days
It was the evening of June 11, 1967, and Officer James Calvert was in the Central Avenue area looking for three young men who robbed a camera store. Calvert spotted a group of youths, which included Chambers, walking near Nebraska and Harrison streets, according to newspaper articles at the time. He ordered Chambers to stop. When he didn't, Calvert fired his revolver once, hitting the unarmed Chambers in the back.
The next three days, rioters burned and looted the Central Avenue area, once considered Tampa's black social hub. Then-State Attorney Paul Antinori ruled the shooting was justifiable.
In 1990, Janie Bell Chambers again pressed the city to investigate her son's death. The investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement also found the shooting justifiable.
Tampa's poet laureate, James Tokley, said the city has never truly addressed the significance of the incident.
"You can't close the door on a thing you don't get right," said Tokley, who also is on the panel that moved to name the recreation center room after Chambers.
He was 'like a father'
On Wednesday, a light rain fell on Jeffery Chambers as he stood beside the concrete slab grave where his brother is buried at Tampa's Rest Haven cemetery. He was 14 when Martin died.
"It was eight of us, and he was the oldest, like a father, said Chambers, a former business owner. His death "just deteriorated us."
Janie Bell Chambers used to visit the grave every year. Now she's buried nearby.
"I believe she would have wanted us to continue this thing," Collins-King Chambers said. "And get some justice."
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Times researcher Mary Mellstrom contributed to this report. Nicole Hutcheson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8828.