I was heartened to participate in the observance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., today with the Urban League of Hampton Roads at the Virginia Beach Convention Center and another commemoration event with Dollar Tree, at their headquarters in Chesapeake. 

As Virginians celebrate a state holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr., I say state holiday because Virginia created the holiday BEFORE the federal government. Undertaking the endeavor to reach the status of an officially recognized day was one of the things that helped me to learn the political  “nuts and bolts” to “getting things done.” 

It took me eight years to see Virginia declare an official state holiday for Dr. King. 

As a State Senator, I was able to get the bill passed in the Senate, only to have it killed in the House of Delegates. I persisted and got the bill passed in the Senate and also the House, only to have it vetoed by the governor, who provided lame excuses. 

I was told that it would cost taxpayer’s dollars that we could not afford. Yet, we had a holiday for Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson, stalwart commanders of rebel forces in defense of slavery, to overthrow the government of America.

Undeterred, I reintroduced the bill in the Senate, only to have it killed in the House. I persisted and got it passed in the Senate and House, again, only to have yet another Governor veto it. 

I finally got the bill passed by both houses over four decades when signed in 1983 by Governor Charles S. Robb. The holiday on January 15, the birthday of Dr. King, is especially poignant for me, as I was born two days later on January 17, 1931.  This day continues to symbolize accomplishment for people of all colors and creeds, and a landmark on the shifting map of time. 

It elucidates the ambitions of the people to shift beyond the historical and cultural boundaries that continue to redefine how Black Americans are viewed.

It undoubtedly sends a message to the world that the long and fraught racial history of Virginia can be overcome through perseverance and greater appreciation of the contributions of ALL Americans. And that they may be recognized without respect to the color of their skin, but “by the content of their character” as Dr. King so aptly remarked. 

Today marks a day of remembrance to carry forth the mantle of equality and opportunity for all. But it is also a day of action. In action we commit ourselves to put these beliefs into work to directly improve our communities, through volunteer service, education of the youth, and the pursuit of greater equity and representation in public service.

Stay tuned.

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