By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
After 24 years on the Hopewell City Council, civil rights activist Dr. Curtis Harris abruptly announced his resignation from the city’s governing panel during its regular weekly meeting February 28.
Dr. Harris’ decision was not a complete surprise. He had been battling with the effects of a stroke he suffered in November 2010 while attending the funeral of the mother of U.S. Congressman Robert Scott of Newport News.
The stroke had impaired his ability to speak for a long period of time. So his daughter Joanna Lucas read a prepared statement to the press and public which outlined her father’s reasons for resigning from his post on council.
“There is a time for everything, and a season for everything,” the statement read to a silent and standing room only crowd in the council chamber. “I have been happy and I do believe I have done good work for the citizens of Hopewell and there truly is a reason for every activity. With some sadness, but with tremendous hopes for the future of our city, I announce that I am retiring from my seat on the Hopewell Council effective March 1, 2012.”
Harris, according the February 29 edition of the Hopewell Progress Index, the local newspaper, had attended only three meetings since he suffered a stroke in November 2010. Since he was released from the hospital early last year, this was the fourth council meeting he had attended and his last of the six and half terms in office.
On the night he announced his resignation, according to Andrew Shannon, a member of the Virginia Southern Christian Leadership Conference in which Harris was a long time leader, supporters from around the state were on hand to help Harris fend off an effort to remove him by fellow council members.
Less than two weeks ago, David Silvestro, who tried to unseat Harris in the 2010 council elections, filed a petition in the Circuit Court, asking that Harris be removed from council for not performing his duties.
But prior to the February 28 council meeting, Harris’ son, Michael, said that during a family conference the councilman decided to step aside rather than endure a physically challenging effort to retain his seat.
In fact, according to Shannon, Harris was scheduled to appear in court February 29, the day after he announced his resignation, to face a hearing to determine if he could be removed. Commonwealth’s Attorney Rick Newman said that considering Harris’ decision, the hearing will be waived.
Now his former colleagues may vote to appoint someone to fill Harris’ seat until a special election is set late this spring. Silvestro said he would be willing to fill the seat. But there may be some reservations about such a move coming from the Black community.
Harris, 87, was first elected to council in 1986, and he was sworn in as Hopewell’s first Black mayor in 1998.
Before his recent resignation from the SCLC’s national leadership, Harris was a long time member of the national Board of Directors of that civil rights group founded in 1957 by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The SCLC was founded as a network of Black ministers and churches throughout the South which lent support to the work of Dr. King and other activists, vowing to fight to bring down Jim Crow segregation and discrimination.
Harris is originally from Surry County, Va. He spent much of he 1960s and 70s picketing, marching, confronting the KKK and filing lawsuits while fighting for economic and political equality for African Americans. His bio says he was arrested 13 times.
He marched with King across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965, when Alabama State troopers tuned back Blacks seeking to march from Selma to Montgomery demanding that Blacks be given the right to vote in that state. An anniversary march in Alabama was held last weekend.
It is unclear who will replace Harris. He was one of only two African Americans who sat on the city council. Three of the people, including Silvestro, who tried to unseat him in 2010, have expressed interest in doing so.
“I am not sure if anyone will be able to replace him on council,” said Shannon, who represented the Peninsula SCLC and the Southeast Community Planning Committee, which recently held an event honoring Harris.
“He is an independent and steady voice that did not back down from the white power structure in that city,” said Shannon. “He has opened a lot of doors for people using his civil rights activism and working on that council. I am just hoping another fair and free voice will come forth and acquire that seat. It is a voice which is needed at this time.”