Suffolk celebrates King, Obama

Published 9:13 pm Monday, January 19, 2009

Suffolk celebrated the convergence of a number of happy circumstances on Monday.

Every year, on the third Monday in January, Martin Luther King Jr. Day is observed. However, 2009 is special, Suffolk leaders said at a celebration at Lakeland High School yesterday.

This year, the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama, will be sworn in a day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It also happens that the 100th anniversary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People – an organization that received the “I Have a Dream Award” yesterday – will be celebrated next month.

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In Suffolk, 2009 has even more significance for civil rights history. William Freeman, the first black chief of the Suffolk Police Department, retired recently, and he was honored at yesterday’s celebration with the Suffolk Community Award.

“It’s a beautiful thing,” said Charles Gates, president of the NAACP Suffolk branch. “It couldn’t happen at a better time,” he said of the connection of events.

Although it has been nearly 46 years since King’s famous “I have a dream” speech, people who spoke at Monday’s celebration said the struggle still continues for racial equality in America, and will continue after Obama’s inauguration. Speakers urged those present to make the change begin in their neighborhoods.

“It is not (Obama’s) responsibility, it is not our local elected officers’ responsibility, to come to our neighborhoods and clean them up,” said Gates. “It is our responsibility.”

The celebration’s keynote speaker, Geoffrey V. Guns, is the senior pastor at Second Calvary Baptist Church in Norfolk. Guns echoed Gates’ words, saying that Obama alone cannot change the outlook for black Americans.

“Many of us never dreamed that we would see today,” he said, adding that Obama’s election “gives hope to people of humble origins.”

Inequalities, however, still exist, Guns said.

“There is a widening gap between rich and poor,” he said. “There are so many people that believe their lives will never improve.”

Guns challenged the Suffolk community to take an active role in fostering academic achievement, supporting marriages, and creating jobs that offer a “real living wage.”

During the ceremony, retired police chief William Freeman received a standing ovation as he accepted the Suffolk Community Award.

“It is only through the grace of God that I have had this opportunity,” Freeman said. “I’ve always thought that this city was very special.”

The Rev. Mark Croston, the secretary of the 2009 Martin Luther King Jr. Day Celebration Committee, added that Freeman has been dedicated to the city and to his church, East End Baptist Church, where Croston is pastor.

“Virginia has not seen a better chief of police,” he said.

Also during the ceremony, winners of the Martin Luther King Jr. essay contest received awards, and the two first-place winners (one each from the middle school level and high school level) read their essays. The contest topic, “A dream deferred, but not denied,” focused on the link between King’s dream and Obama’s election.

“We know Dr. King is smiling,” said Mayor Linda T. Johnson. “We remember Dr. King for all his many, many, many accomplishments.”

Guns, in a final challenge, cautioned those present to eliminate thoughts that foster hopelessness and despair in America.

“Rise up, and create a different vision for the city of Suffolk,” he said.