‘The light of creative altruism’

Published 9:56 pm Monday, January 20, 2020

People gathered at East End Baptist Church on Monday to honor the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and to share their own dreams for the Suffolk community.

The annual Suffolk city-wide Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration was held at East End Baptist Church on Portsmouth Boulevard Monday morning. Visitors celebrated the federal holiday with powerful prayer, songs, awards and speeches that riveted the crowd inside the Suffolk church.

The New Mount Joy Food for Living Ministry choir thrilled the church crowd with performances that got everyone onto their feet in cheer and applause. There was an inspired performance of “We Shall Overcome,” as honored guests marched in a procession to their seats inside the auditorium.

Email newsletter signup

“I want to start by telling you that I had a prepared message, but I decided that I’d just take it from the heart instead,” Suffolk Mayor Linda T. Johnson said to the audience Monday morning. “Today is about Martin Luther King. Today is about love. Today is about Martin Luther King and everything he did, and the fact that he never stopped — until he was stopped in his tracks.”

Johnson was fortunate enough to have lived in 1963, when Dr. King spoke to an estimated 7,000 people at Peanut Park in Suffolk. She spoke about Dr. King’s historic visit to the city, about how he was willing to give his life for his beliefs, and about the work that still needs to be done today.

“He is a mentor to me. I loved Martin Luther King and I could quote all day long, but I will tell you this: there is work to be done. We are not where we need to be,” Johnson said. “The fact that a Martin Luther King event in Richmond was canceled today, because of a gun rights rally, tells us where are not where we need to be.”

Speakers on the East End Baptist Church auditorium stage shared a common thread in that many spoke about the work that needs to be done to positively impact the community.

Karen Jenkins spoke on behalf of her husband, Suffolk Delegate Clinton Jenkins, who could not be there for the Monday event, she said.

“You elected him to work on your behalf, and today while we peacefully celebrate Dr. King in this great facility, he is standing up on your behalf, passing legislation for our homes to be safe and our streets to be safe.”

The event also celebrated accomplishments of those who have made positive impacts on the city.

Suffolk City Councilman Curtis Milteer Sr. received the Suffolk Community Award for his work in the community. Milteer, a Suffolk native, was first elected to Suffolk City Council from the Whaleyville Borough in May 1980.

He is the first African American in Suffolk history to be elected to nine consecutive terms on City Council. He’s served as mayor and vice mayor and received the Jessie Rattley Politician Action Award in 1984. In 2005, he was named Suffolk’s First Citizen by the Suffolk Rotary Club.

Milteer is 89 years old, but said that “God has been good to me,” having blessed him with a “long life and a sound mind.”

“Thank you and may God bless you, and may we continue to serve the people,” he said.

Dr. Madelene Beard with Deborah’s Women in Ministry, and pastor of Galatians United Church of Christ in Suffolk, presented the “I Have A Dream Award” to Pastor Connie Simpson of Feed First Ministry. According to Beard, the award is given annually to an organization that displays the values of Dr. King.

Feed First Ministry’s mission is to provide shelter and food to the homeless, and the organization has housed 60 homeless men, women and children, Beard said, and has served more than 1,400 meals and accrued more than 1,200 volunteer hours.

Like many others that took to the church stage on Monday, Simpson has her own dream.

“I do have a dream, and my dream is to see every person — every homeless person in Suffolk — with a warm place to stay,” she said.

Dr. John Gordon III, superintendent of Suffolk Public Schools, spoke about how the young need to be encouraged to help bring about a better tomorrow, and started at the podium with a story from his own youth.

He talked about when he was an eighth-grader in Henrico County in 1987, before Martin Luther King Jr. Day was a federal holiday. He told the audience about when he and his friends decided to take a stand and not go to school that day.

Instead, his mother took him to a rally in Richmond, where he shared his message with a news reporter at the rally.

“We wanted to send a message to our principals, our leaders, whomever, that really thought that the importance of this day should be recognized. Not only in Henrico, but nationwide,” Dr. Gordon said on Monday.

More than three decades later, the message hasn’t changed, he said.

“See our students, ladies and gentlemen, to be honest, they don’t see color. Our students are up to the point where they understand that there’s a level of equality and equity, and really judging people based on how they treat them. That’s what our generation, our millennials — Generation Z — that is what they know. The problem is sometimes what their parents tell them,” Dr. Gordon said.

It’s our job, he said, to reinforce the love that he sees in Suffolk each and every day.

“The collaboration, the teamwork that we have with our leadership, between City Council and the School Board, and the support that we get from our parents, our community organizations, and from our faith-based leadership. That’s the teamwork that’s going to make this dream a reality.”

One of these younger community members is De’Ryan Artis, a Lakeland High School senior and the first-place winner of the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Essay Contest.

The contest was held by the Suffolk City-wide Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Committee and was open to sixth- through 12th-grade students in Suffolk Public Schools. Second place in the contest was awarded to Simone Windley, and third place to Trenton James Andrew McMillen, both from Nansemond River High School.

As the first-place winner, Artis had the opportunity to read his essay on Monday.

“Dr. King’s goal calls for people within communities to unite as one to create change,” Artis said as he read his essay aloud inside the church. “Over the years, however, different forms of violence have caused much hurt and turmoil, even right here in our own community.

“Members of the community must come together to be the change that is needed for progress,” Artis said. “As a member of my community, though I am young, I hope to form mentoring groups for children, volunteer more within the community, and host or promote character-building events.

“This is my answer to Dr. King’s invocation, ‘every man must decide whether to walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.’”