Suffolk loses a civil rights pioneer

Published 10:00 pm Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Not all of the people who have made Suffolk a better place are among those who can say they were born here. In fact, one of the city’s greatest historical heroes, Amedeo Obici, founder of Planters Peanuts, moved to Suffolk from Pennsylvania, and he was an immigrant born in Italy.

The Rev. Dr. Robert “Bob” Marr was another transplant to Suffolk whose long and sometimes hard service here ultimately made the city a far better place than it could have been. Dr. Marr died on Thanksgiving Day at the age of 95, and a service will be held in his honor today at 2 p.m.

Suffolk could have been a tough assignment for the minister from Massachusetts, who came to Suffolk Christian Church in 1962, near the beginning of a civil rights movement that would turn violent in some other parts of the South.

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“We came into Suffolk as Yankees,” son Bruce Marr recalled last week. “Back in the ‘60s, that was a little bit different than today. Despite that handicap, Dad quickly made friends with everyone and got their confidence. People felt they didn’t have to worry about this particular Yankee.”

Dr. Marr would not let people in Suffolk be content with the status quo as it related to civil rights. His new congregation had sought his help guiding them through the changes they saw on the horizon, and he stepped up to the challenge.

“He tried to help civil rights and integration move forward in the community in a peaceful manner,” wife Barbara Marr said. “He was asked by several community leaders for advice, and he hosted some of the first integrated, interdenominational ministers’ meetings in Suffolk.”

In part because of his leadership during that time, Dr. Marr was named Suffolk First Citizen in 1973. He had the unusual distinction of having received a similar honor 13 years earlier in Conneaut, Ohio, where he had previously pastored another church.

“He always strove for harmony, but not just harmony for harmony’s sake,” son Wayne Marr said last week. “He always had other goals, and he always accomplished his goals without any backlash. I don’t know how he did that, except he had a good understanding of human nature. He was very influential without being antagonistic.”

Dr. Marr was a man who had earned the respect of people from all geographical areas, from all racial backgrounds and from all economic segments. He was well loved for his honesty, his integrity and his gentle spirit, and Suffolk is truly a better place for his having lived here.

Suffolk has lost a true treasure, a man who had earned every right to call himself a Suffolkian.