Amid ongoing protests against police brutality and systemic racism that have continued around Virginia and the country for more than a month, local and state leaders lauded the resilience of the Black community and discussed what changes still need to be made at a Friday event in Danville.
A crowd gathered in a small stretch of Holbrook Street around the Williams Community Resource Center on a hot Friday afternoon to hear speeches from local officials, civil rights leaders and Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax.
“Even as the monuments to racial oppression and to the Confederacy began to be torn down across Virginia … we must also tear down those living monuments to racial oppression that carry the oppression from generation to generation to generation,” Fairfax said, mentioning police brutality, inequitable health care and educational disparities as three examples.
The sizzling July sun beat down from above, with many people holding umbrellas to shade themselves. Three tents covered several filled rows of chairs in front of the house, while other groups stood in the street and nearby shaded areas. Speakers stood on the front porch of the Williams Community Resource Center, which was dedicated last year.
The former family home of Jerry Williams Sr., who was active in the local civil rights movement, now houses the Danville NAACP and will include a civil rights exhibit.
Carl Williams, the youngest son of Jerry Williams, spoke about the role that his father played during the civil rights movement, including as an attorney for the local NAACP, as well as his family’s role in student protests in the local library and Ballou Park. A member of the Black Panthers and a converted Muslim, Williams himself led a walkout of George Washington High School after integration when conditions for Black students were still poor.
“It’s not easy overturning centuries of oppression... this is not a Black issue, this is not a white issue, this is a justice issue,” he said.
Tommy Bennett, the president of the Danville chapter of the NAACP, said there has been a major increase in membership in the NAACP in recent weeks, and he implored more people — regardless of skin color — to join.
“It was a mixed organization,” Bennett said of the NAACP when it was founded. “This organization is for everybody … guess what we’re all colored people, and it’s just not one color,” Bennett said.
Danville Deputy City Manager Earl Reynolds reflected on the positive impact that the Williams Community Resource Center has already made in the community in the year since it opened and said the city has more projects in store for the area.
“It’s been our pleasure and our joy in the city administration to work here in the Westmoreland community,” he said.
Pittsylvania County NAACP President Anita Royston reflected on how the current national focus on racial justice is bringing things to light.
“There’s no room for racism in this country or in this city,” Royston said. “There’s no place for a racist to hide. Not dead, and not alive.”
Fairfax says that the city of Danville, especially with the role many within the city played in the civil rights movement, is an inspiration to him.
“You not only inspire me to make sure that we’re fighting on the right side of history…. but you set an example of light in the middle of darkness,” Fairfax said.
Bennett said that one of his goals is getting more people to the polls during elections.
“We’ve got to rock the vote," he said. "In November, we really got to rock the vote.”
Bennet said he is supporting Fairfax in his run for governor, but he also sees it as his responsibility to hold elected officials accountable.
“If you’re doing what I think you shouldn’t, I will call you out,” he said to the fleet of local officials and Fairfax who were standing next to him. Members of Danville City Council and the school board were present, as well as the clerk of court and the sheriff.
While reflecting on the current national reckoning with racial justice and how much has changed since the first slaves were brought to the United States in 1619, Fairfax said this moment is the beginning of even more changes and improvements in the lives of Black people.
“This is the first year of the next 400 years," Fairfax said. "We’re going to write a different story in Virginia and in America over the next four centuries.”
Ayers reports for the Register & Bee. Reach him at (434) 791-7981.
Get local news delivered to your inbox!
Subscribe to our Daily Headlines newsletter.