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Roundtable set to remember King’s visit to Suffolk

The Virginia Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commission has been traveling around the state conducting roundtables in each of the 12 Virginia communities that King visited.

The commission will be visiting the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts later this month to pay tribute to King’s visit to Peanut Park in 1963.

“When we started thinking about how we wanted to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the King assassination, we looked at Atlanta and didn’t want to do one day to focus on April 4,” said Commission Chair and Virginia Sen. Jennifer McClellan. “As time goes on, people outside of those communities don’t know he was here, and we decided to do a series of community conversations.”

King spent a Friday evening, June 28, 1963, speaking to an estimated 7,000 people with the theme that “the Negro is still a slave a hundred years after he was set free,” according to a Suffolk News-Herald article published the Sunday after the event.

Full freedom was what King spoke about, and it was what he fought for until he was assassinated 50 years ago.

The roundtable wants to analyze where the communities were when King came to visit and compare that to how far the communities have come.

“We want to focus on the first King visit to the individual community,” McClellan said. “We can ask, ‘Where are we and where do we go from here?’

“We can celebrate his life and mourn his death, and we will keep his work alive.”

While the discussions are for everyone, it is most important to focus on those who were too young to remember the visit and the ones who weren’t alive during King’s life.

“A lot of people born within the past 50 or so years, they just don’t know. Now we can have a dialogue because everyone agrees, we haven’t achieved a vision of a beloved community,” McClellan said. “It gives us a chance to figure out what we do to get there.”

King’s time spent in Suffolk, though short, was a momentous occasion. It was important for the black community of Suffolk to gather and hear the vision and the dreams of King, and those in power were well aware of the importance.

The Planters Peanuts Division of Standards Brand ran a night shift, but the company granted a request that the employees were given the night off to attend the rally, according to News-Herald reporting from the time.

Suffolk saw King speak with conviction and passion, and they heard him speak about plans for a march on Washington. That march, now famous, happened exactly two months after the visit to Suffolk, and it was at that march that King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Reminding those that experienced it first hand and teaching those that weren’t alive is one of the most important reasons to have the roundtables, according to McClellan.

“What is interesting, one of the recurring things is how if we don’t know our history we are doomed to repeat it, and we are making sure young people know that history,” McClellan said. “Rather than just talking about it, we can be deliberate about diversity and from these conversations the community will continue to move forward and do a better job in achieving King’s vision.”

The commission has already visited five of the 12 localities — Richmond, Charlottesville, Farmville, Williamsburg and Danville — and they have scheduled visits for the next two, Suffolk and Lynchburg.

The remaining five cities — Hampton, Hopewell, Newport News, Norfolk and Petersburg — have not yet had information announced.

While the commission is visiting only 12 localities, McClellan thinks that this type of community roundtable could be beneficial all over Virginia and the rest of the country.

“King only visited 12 localities, but we are talking about once we get through the 12 should we expand to other parts of the state,” McClellan said. “People think of the March on Washington and Birmingham, and they don’t realize how vast his work was.”

These roundtables are how the commission will start a conversation within Virginia, and for McClellan and her team, the conversation is the most important part.

“I think it is more important than ever to go talk in a constructive way, and I think we see while we have come far, we have a long way to go,” McClellan said. “I think the first step is to talk.”

McClellan believes the whole country could benefit from these kinds of conversations.

The commission will have the roundtable discussion from 6 to 8 p.m. July 24 at the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts, 110 W. Finney Ave.

The program is free and open to the public.