Residents discuss race, responsibility at King 'Beloved Community Conversation'

npetersen@vagazette.com

The carpets inside the worship hall at First Baptist Church are red, the walls are white and the columns behind the pulpit are a light powder blue. A U.S. flag hangs underneath the apse’s stained glass window, flanked on the left by the flag representing the Christian faith.

In First Baptist, politics and faith work hand in hand, and on Wednesday evening, a crowd of residents and six speakers filled the church’s worship hall to participate in the fourth of 12 ‘Beloved Community Conversations’ organized by the Virginia Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Commission.

The Commission, established by the General Assembly in 1992, seeks to honor and continue King’s legacy. The conversations are part of the Commission’s King in Virginia project and will take place at each of the 12 different locations King visited in his 20 trips to Virginia.

The event was also live-streamed on Facebook.

State Sen. Monty Mason delivered opening remarks and Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan moderated a panel discussion, which included:

» Rev. Reginald Davis, pastor of First Baptist Church

» Rev. Christopher Epperson, rector of Bruton Parish Episcopal Church

» Col. Lafayette Jones of the James City County Historical Society, who was present when King visited First Baptist Church

» Brian J. Smalls, president of the York-James City-Williamsburg Branch of the NAACP

» Dr. Robert Vinson, associate professor of history and Africana studies at the College of William and Mary.

McClellan began the discussion with King’s idea of the ‘beloved community,’ in which poverty, hunger and homelessness would no longer be tolerated.

“We should ask, ‘where are we in the process of achieving a beloved community?’ Where do we go from here?” McClellan said.

She then asked the panelists to reflect on their own experiences with King’s work and to describe what steps are still necessary to realize his goals.

As a sophomore in college, Jones said he returned to Williamsburg to hear King speak on June 26, 1962. Sitting in the third pew from the back, Jones listened to a message focused on the history of the black community in the U.S.

After growing too large for the worship hall, the crowd spilled into the street outside, where another speaker echoed King’s words from the pulpit.

When King visited, he was on an 11-year journey across the country that stretched six million miles and featured 2,500 different speeches. King was only interrupted by his assassination in 1968.

As a historian, Vinson joked that he felt obligated to put King’s work in context and reminded the audience that at the time of his death, King was unpopular in many parts of America. Vinson encouraged those in attendance to rediscover the controversial aspects of King’s activism.

“​​​​​​We hold onto that King who just had a dream and not that King who supported a beloved community. We need to hold onto that radical King,” Vinson said.

Along with racial equality, King campaigned for the end of the war in Vietnam and sanctions on apartheid South Africa. When he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee in 1968, he was supporting a sanitation workers’ strike.

Smalls, a millennial, asked the audience to move beyond “internet courage,” and to engage in real, difficult conversations with people they disagree with.

Epperson echoed the same advice, speaking about his experience working in churches across the East Coast.

“Williamsburg is just like every other place that I’ve been: full of fear and impasses that keep us from doing the next right thing. We need to engage with the people we demonize. We have to get to know each other as human beings,” he said.

Addressing many members of his congregation in the audience, Davis noted that today’s world might be different than King’s, but it is not necessarily better.

“A lot of things have changed [since King died], but not a lot has been corrected,” Davis said. “Every correction is a change, but not every change is a correction.”

Afterwards, McClellan opened the panel up to questions from the audience. Residents stepped to the microphone and voiced their concerns about fear surrounding controversial political topics and how to maintain King’s legacy in future generations.

Davis closed the discussion with a word of advice and repeated something said by a member of the audience:

“You don’t need to be religious to do what’s right. Let’s not wait for a crisis to have a conversation.”

As the panelists stood to shake hands at the end, the inscription on the church’s communion table became visible behind them: “This Do In Remembrance of Me.”

This year is the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination.

Petersen can be reached by phone at 757-345-8812 or by email at npetersen@dailypress.com.

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