June 1963: MLK stuns Suffolk crowd

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of stories this week remembering significant events and institutions in the history of African-Americans in Suffolk and the surrounding region.

On June 28, 1963, thousands had gathered in the summer night to hear Dr. Martin Luther King at Peanut Park.

The Suffolk News-Herald had reported that an estimated 7,000 men and women had amassed at the rally. The Planters Peanuts Division of Standards Brand granted employees’ request to have the night off to attend the rally.

King was the main speaker for the three-hour-long “Freedom Fund” rally staged by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In his speech, he repeated the same chorus that was heard throughout the country that summer: “that the Negro wants all the privileges of citizenship — now,” according to the Suffolk News-Herald.

He spoke slowly at first. Then he steadily increased his tempo, sending the thousands at Peanut Park into “repeated bursts of delighted applause.” His words on civil rights legislation cut to the heart of the matter.

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

The people of Suffolk heard King speak about plans for a march on Washington. It was at that march — exactly two months after his visit to Suffolk — that King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

His legacy and the lasting impact he had on Suffolk was discussed in July at a roundtable discussion organized at the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts by Virginia’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commission.

The commission visited the 12 Virginia localities that King had visited to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the King assassination last year and to take a closer look at those communities to see how far they’ve come since.

“When we were deciding how to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, we decided we wanted to focus not on the moment of his death but the legacy of his life,” Sen. Jennifer McClellan, who moderated the event, wrote in an email. “We also wanted to assess where we are today in achieving the “Beloved Community” for which he worked and where we go from here.”

The panel featured Suffolk leaders and those who had those that had experienced King’s life and visit, such as Bishop James Johnson, Ruby Walden, Mayor Linda T. Johnson and others.

Bishop Johnson was right beside King at Peanut Park that evening. He said that he captivated the crowd right from the start. He smiled as he recalled how “the noise ceased, and everyone was giving an attentive ear.”

“It was an awesome gathering. I have never seen so many people at one time in my lifetime,” he said.

Walden remembered getting to spend time with him as they rode in the car in Suffolk. She said she had never met anyone with his personality.

“He just showed you love and concern, and he showed that he was here for a purpose,” she said.

She saw Suffolk change after King’s visit. Once a city where segregation and racism dominated, like the rest of the country, Suffolk has made strides in the right direction since, the panelists at last year’s event said.

But the purpose that King spoke of more than 50 years ago is still being fought for today.

“We cannot give up. We have to keep pushing. We have to believe in what we know is right and sow what we know is right,” Walden said.

McClellan wrote that there are still two more localities in the “Beloved Communities” tour — Hopewell and Dinwiddie — and that the commission is organizing another discussion series about the history of lynching with the Equal Justice Initiative.

Accounts from people like Bishop Johnson and Walden show the lasting impressions of the Civil Rights Movement, she wrote, and help teach King’s lessons to those that weren’t alive during his time.

They also bring people back to a night that left thousands in awe in the city of Suffolk.

“While time can bring new value to how we reflect on that movement,” McClellan wrote. “The firsthand accounts from that time, especially from those leading and organizing the movements, add irreplaceable insight that is important to consider as we carve out our own paths in the fight for justice.”