By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal Guide
The City of Norfolk held its annual tribute to civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., at the Historic Attucks Theatre.
Norfolk Mayor Kenneth C. Alexander joined members of the council and various faith leaders at this year’s event, before a large audience in the 100-year-old theater.
The keynote speaker for the program was the longest serving member of the Norfolk City Council, Paul Riddick, who spoke of “two worlds” – one Black and facing economic challenges and the other white, enjoying the privileges and advantages, in the city of Norfolk and nationally.
Greetings came from the mayor, who said about King, “His work was built largely on faith. We are gathered here today because all of us find inspiration in his words and strive to reach a level of public citizenship that he modeled throughout his life.”
Councilwoman Mamie B. Johnson served as the mistress of ceremony.
The Rev. Veronica Thomas, Pastor of the First United Presbyterian Church, and Ernest Muhammad, a Minister at the Muhammad’s Mosque, delivered short messages about the life and legacy of Dr. King.
“We celebrate not just a man, but a man of God who understood what his calling was,” said Rev. Thomas.
“Do we understand what our obligation is to justice today?” Thomas asked, describing King’s work in leading the 381-day boycott of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and emerging as the leader of the modern civil rights
Muhammad said that Dr. King would be very proud of a large number of Blacks in government and the progress that “he worked hard for us” to realize today.
Muhammad listed four basic principles of Dr. King which Blacks should be applying today to realize his dream: Unity; Love; Being A Good Samaritan; and Having Vision.
Before Riddick dived into the keynote speech, he recognized some of the now deceased political pioneers who paved the way for him and current Black political leaders in the state and region.
They included Councilman Herbert M. Collins, Sr., and Attorney James Gay.
He said the two joined forces to ”bring the city of Norfolk to its knees” by filing a suit which eventually dismantled the city’s at-large election of the council and led to the current ward system.
Also, he named Lawyer and State Delegate William P. Robinson, who passed legislation to create the single-member legislative district which expanded the number of minority legislators.
Riddick said despite progress in Norfolk, one chapter was the city’s “turning its back on the Brown Decision” and returning to a segregated schools system in the 1980s when it abandoned crosstown busing of elementary school students.
Riddick said he prides himself on “being out of step” with his fellow council members on many socio-economic issues facing the city.
Among King’s speeches which still “captivate” him, Riddick said, is King’s “Other America” speech at Stanford University on April 14, 1967.
Fifty years ago, King talked about the economic privileges of whites compared to the “Other America” inhabited by African-Americans. He said the situation exists today and added, “Sadly enough, I see the other Norfolk.”
Riddick said that “most disappointingly,” the streets across the nation that bear Dr. King’s name, including a small stretch of Norfolk’s Church Street, run through Black communities which are plagued by poverty, high rates of crime, drug addiction, and low student achievement.
He said these are “challenges which do not exist in other parts of Norfolk … no on the city’s Westside.”
“Our children come out of their homes and see some of the most depressing sites that exist,” he continued. “When our children draw pictures of their neighborhoods, there are no images of lovely homes with flowers and clean streets.”
He said many of the public schools bordering MLK Blvd., are not well maintained, have fewer experienced teachers and assets to enable children to be successful.
Riddick represents Ward 4 and describes it as a commercial desert lacking of businesses “you and I can walk to” such as cleaners and restaurants or a grocery store in Berkley”
Riddick blames an absence of banks which could supply commercial loans and create jobs as part of problem. The other, he noted, is the city’s Office of Economic Development. He said it works to secure commercial development in other parts of the city and not the Eastside, populated by Blacks.
Riddick said the city is returning to the old “systematic form of racism that keeps Blacks down” and deprives their communities of investment.”
Riddick said Black and white people of goodwill remain silent as these disparities exist.
He said the city is poised the raze three public housing communities, but cannot assure that the displaced residents will be provided with safe, sanitary and affordable housing.
Toward the end of the speech after listing the litany of disparities, Riddick asked: “Is this what Dr. King wanted?”