“If someone had proposed that the Modern Civil Rights Movement start in Tidewater, it never would have gotten off the ground.”
This is what I heard 30 years ago when I first arrived in Hampton Roads. The statement was from a long time, local activist’s description of how complacent Blacks in this region could be about the Civil Rights Movement in America.
Instead, it started in Montgomery, Alabama. You know the story.
Thanks to Rosa Parks, and others, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was recruited to lead the boycott that showed the masters of Jim Crow that Black people could use their dollars and their feet to fight Jim Crow.
Compliancy or not, it surprised me, that on April 4, 2018, of all days, there was no significant local observation of Dr. King’s death a half century ago, especially on the Southside.
Thanks to the Peninsula SCLC, there was a “Community Discussion On Violence” and reflections on the life and legacy of Dr. King at the Belgian Waffle Restaurant. Also, the SCLC on that side held a commemoration supported by its members and members of the Richmond Metro Area and Vicinity Boys and Girls Club.
This was done as a community service project of voter education and voter information in Newport News.
The New Journal and Guide marshaled its resources to include much of its edition for that week to recalling the life and times of Dr. King.
At the historic Blyden Library, a display has been erected doing the same. It will be up for public patronage for several weeks, the Head Librarian said.
But on the Southside, in the cities of Norfolk, Portsmouth and Virginia Beach, I may be wrong, but there was no rally in the park, no march down a boulevard or assembling of public gatherings with sermons from the pulpit, marking this 50th anniversary of King’s tragic passing.
It seems that much of Hampton Roads went about its business and did not take time to collectively acknowledge the work of the martyred Drum Major.
I need not remind you, that despite all of the poverty, disparity and indifference which exist in this region, this region collectively benefitted from his work.
Remember the the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act, and others were fostered by the Civil Rights Movement he led.
Black, Hispanic, and Gay people have been able to secure better economic mobility and security.
Without such protections would Blacks have been able to secure employment (other than menial labor) and economic security at the various private businesses and the large military industrial complex in this region?
This is why, despite pockets of poverty and disparity, each of our area’s cities has a significant middle class, which has created a large Black professional class.
Of course, a smaller Black middle class existed before the movement took shape in the mid-1950s. That educated Black professional class created and sustained two universities, hospitals, secured public support for neighorhoods, and libraries and schools which serviced them.
Fifty years ago, Dr. Milton Reid, an icon of civil rights activism was working on plans to assist King with his poor People Campaign on the Tuesday night King died in Memphis. Reid said his friend, King, was scheduled to visit Norfolk that following Friday
After King died, Reid and other disciples and friends of King, assured that King’s campaign to fight poverty proceeded the following June. It passed through Norfolk.
Many, like Dr. Reid, have passed on. But those left and those who adhere to Dr. King’s Dream, march on and watch as the ideal is passed to this and future generations.
Leading up to King’s death, according to the old timers, the movement King led, gave Black folk a “backbone in Tidewater” to fight.
His name and words were uttered by activists, pastors and students when racism, indifference and brutality were challenged, in words, marches and laws.
To the region’s credit, King’s legacy is heralded every mid-January.
Black and White people walk in the chilly air to a towering monument built in his honor in downtown Norfolk, or they gather in the churches, theaters and venues in other cities in the region.
Many of us may not be there when the 60th or other anniversaries of his passing and legacy will be recognized by the national community.
I hate to even mention it, but did you notice that not a word was uttered from our current executive occupant of the White House on April 4 about the King observance.
Of course 45 has no gravity or legitimacy, even as President, to do so. But some symbolic gesture should have been made.
Instead, there were only cold tweets about sending troops to deter brown skin, unwelcomed, poor and downtrodden migrants from crossing our southern border.
But Hampton Roads should have joined Memphis, Birmingham, Atlanta and other communities where large numbers of Black people call home and paid their respects to King 50 years after his tragic and untimely demise.
The star of King’s legacy shines just as bright over Hampton Roads each day. So Black and White politicians, preachers and professionals in Hampton Roads should have been more aware and respectful of it.
We owe him that much, don’t you think?
By Leonard E. Colvin