Beneath the chandeliers of the Stratford Conference Center, hugs were shared, and chatter filled the room as more people filed into the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Black Tie Gala on Saturday evening.
“You all saving this seat for somebody?” One woman asked another as she approached the table for Mount Calvary Baptist Church.
“No, these are your seats,” answered a woman already sitting down, jovial.
Different Baptist church groups filled tables along side other tables held by local NAACP chapters.
The annual event marked the second day of the SCLC’s celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy ahead of the national holiday honoring him on Monday. People traveled from North Carolina, Newport News and Richmond to come together on Saturday night, including Clarence Henderson, a member of the “Greensboro Four” who staged a famous sit-in during the civil rights movement.
Energy filled the room as various religious leaders and the choir group Genesis led the gala’s participants in praise of God. “Hallelujahs” came in full force, and some people rose to their feet, swaying and clapping their hands.
As local group of leaders and officials took their turns welcoming everyone who came to gala, each showed deference to God before talking about the reason they gathered.
In his statement of purpose, the Rev. Avon Keen called attention to violence that has fallen over Danville, stating that while everyone should enjoy the evening, they shouldn’t forget what’s happening in their city.
Keen pointed to the death of a 15-year-old in particular, saying when King was 15 he was nearly graduated from school.
“In Danville, our 15-year-old was laying in the street, dead,” he said.
He said everyone, including the church, needed to do its part to reverse course and help lift the black community away from the violence.
“Enjoy yourself, but understand the seriousness of the hour in Danville,” said Keen. “Understand the seriousness of the hour in the black home.”
In his remarks, Dr. Gary Miller, a Danville city councilman, talked about what King’s legacy meant to him, “as a white man.”
He recalled the occasions in his childhood when he witnessed his African-American friends face discrimination ¬— sitting in a different part of the movie theater, segregated schools or not being allowed to play sports at certain schools.
Thanks to King’s work, Miller said he could be with his African-American friends with less obstacles come integration.
“That’s why I say Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. helped make us all free,” he said.
Pittsylvania County NAACP Chapter President Anita Royston opened with a brief history of the organization before emphasizing what was a theme of the night: gratitude for the progress made with the knowledge that more is left to be done.
“Today, there’s been a lot of changes, but we all know we have a long way to go,” she said.
In concluding her speech, she said, “Like Dr. Martin Luther King said, until the African-American is free and equal, nobody, none of us are free and equal.”
For the keynote, the Rev. Dean Nelson, chairman of the Frederick Douglass Foundation, addressed the gala and called the church to action.
Leaning on a quote from King’s famed Letter from Birmingham Jail, he said at this point in time, the church has become more of a social club rather than serving in its role as “the conscious of the state.”
“My desire is for it to regain that spiritual, prophetic position in society,” he said. “That is kind of the underlying foundation for me.”
The Frederick Douglass Foundation pushes for the strengthening of black homes, criminal justice reform and economic opportunity.
Nelson said speaking at an SCLC event recognizing King’s legacy was a “particular honor” for him as it is the organization founded by King.
He said he’s known Keen for seven years after meeting at a march in Newport News and appreciates the continued growth in their relationship.
Ahead of the gala, the SCLC held two youth events at churches for the first time to kick off the weekend, on in Danville, the other in North Carolina.
At Danville’s East New Hope Baptist Church, choir and orchestra students from George Washington High School performed for a group of seniors and listened to the elders’ stories about listening to King speak or their experiences during and before the civil rights movement.
For senior Jamyia Adams, the experience was particularly impactful, showing her that the civil rights movement was closer to the present than she thought.
“I learned a lot. A lot that I didn’t learn in school, like in history classes,” she said.
Adams said she enjoyed watching the seniors smile as they performed.
Keen said the SCLC is working to get more youth involved as the older generation of civil rights leaders start to age out.
The final SCLC event of the weekend will be Sunday’s “Stop the Killing” march, and all are invited to participate.
Keen said assembly for the march starts at 5:30 p.m. in downtown Danville at the JTI Fountain. The march itself is set to begin at 6 p.m.