Conversations lead to collaboration

Published 7:05 pm Wednesday, August 8, 2018

By Tonya S. Swindell

An event sponsored by the Virginia General Assembly’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Commission encouraged conversations leading to collaboration in Suffolk.

The organized forum commemorated King’s visit on June 28, 1963. It featured local leaders who discussed relevant topics, answered thought-provoking questions and offered informed suggestions about how to enhance Suffolk’s future.
Sen. Jennifer McClellan explained the commission’s decision to highlight stops King made in Virginia. Bishop James Johnson proudly described sitting next to the leader who spoke at Peanut Park. Ms. Ruby Walden commented about the love, attentiveness and kindness King exuded when they rode together in the same car.

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Mayor Linda Johnson shared about the private and public significance of King’s arrival. His visit coincided with her 12th birthday. And as a city official, she acknowledged Suffolk’s progress but stated it has a ways to go before fulfilling King’s vision.

Delegate Cliff Hayes reflected on personal and professional challenges that endeared him to the leader’s message. Hayes talked about the importance of youth receiving guidance, development and understanding. He particularly emphasized the need to prepare them for success in science, technology, engineering and math.

City Attorney Helivi Holland shared about experiences from childhood to adulthood. She advised Suffolk residents to “stay woke” by taking advantage of opportunities to make our community better. She emphasized benefits of voting and being civic-minded.

Dr. Felton Whitfield, pastor and district superintendent of Church of God in Christ, talked about the church and “village” that used to help raise kids. He encouraged Suffolkians to retain strongly held values and carry them forward.

Mrs. Costellar Ledbetter, former president of Suffolk’s NAACP, talked about current events and her opinion of how Dr. King would respond. Her words caused me to think of the unique way in which he regularly combined love, compassion and a strong sense of justice. I also considered how deeply held values can shape, mold and alter our community’s consciousness.

I had the pleasure of meeting a variety of community leaders: an associate pastor, a behavioral consultant/mentor, a retired colonel and mother of our city attorney, owner of a financial services business who formerly managed a historic presidential home, a high school social studies teacher motivated to give students experiential knowledge of governmental practices, the current and immediate past president of Suffolk’s NAACP, educators and community activists.

From a distance I also saw a City Councilman whom I remember. He was the first politician to knock on my front door with his wife, then stay a few minutes to hear my family’s concerns. Before leaving, he shared relevant reasons why he chose to run for office.

Participating in the event made me feel proud and enlightened — proud to be among leaders who embraced Dr. King’s vision, and enlightened by interactions, stories and people within Suffolk’s community. I look forward to more conversations leading to collaboration. And
I appreciate the MLK Memorial Commission for helping us glance backward to move forward.

Tonya Swindell writes a blog for and a teacher for Kingdom Building Equipping School ( She can be reached at