Clark: Change still needed

Published 9:58 pm Saturday, February 24, 2018

Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of stories on Sundays during February, which is Black History Month, highlighting Suffolk residents’ memories of the Civil Rights movement.

Harvey Clark can remember being about 10 years old and witnessing landmark moments in the Civil Rights movement in Suffolk.

He recalled the men that he looked up to in those days and still does. One was Moses Riddick, the Civil Rights activist who helped register black voters in the 1940s before serving as Suffolk’s vice mayor. Clark referred to Riddick and the others as “the crew.”

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“They taught blacks respect, dignity, loyalty, integrity and love,” Clark said.

He remembered June 28, 1963, when an estimated 7,000 people packed Suffolk’s Peanut Park to hear Dr. Martin Luther King’s powerful message of equality precisely two months prior to his seminal “I have a dream” speech.

King was escorted by the Nansemond County Sheriff’s Department’s first three black deputies: Nathaniel Walker, Ollie Taylor Jr. and John Riddick.

Clark was just a child when King came to Suffolk. He desperately wanted to meet him, but his mother said otherwise.

“My momma told me to come home or I would get a beating, so you know which way I went,” Clark laughed.

Clark went to East Suffolk Elementary School and John F. Kennedy High School when he was too young to understand what the teachers were going through under the burdens of limited resources, both for themselves and their students.

“I can recall teachers buying our lunches, buying extra books for us and clothes,” he said. “Those teachers were our mothers away from home.”

According to encyclopediavirginia.org, a number of cross burnings occurred in Nansemond and Suffolk counties between 1949 and 1952. Clark remembers crosses burning in Riddick’s yard and throughout downtown Suffolk. He described being told to avoid certain streets in the city to keep away from the Klu Klux Klan.

It was when he became a man that Clark fought back through the Local 26 United Auto Workers. He was there for the labor strikes and civil unrest. He could still picture one woman’s face with blood coming from where a policeman had struck her in the head during one of their protests.

There were the Black Christmases, in which people of color were encouraged to keep their homes bare of Christmas ornamentation during the holidays as a sign of solidarity.

Clark said the city is still plagued by black and white lines that go back even further than his childhood. He longs for greater diversity in government and better opportunities for blacks overall.

“The only way I could see a change is if city codes and laws make the change,” he said.

His words echo a quote from King himself.

“There are some who say you cannot change people by laws, but if civil rights legislation can’t change the heart, it can control the heartless,” King said.