TNCC King gala highlights female activists


Published: January 30, 2009

The Daily Press

Martin Luther King Jr.’s 80th birthday was celebrated Wednesday at Thomas Nelson Community College, but the occasion was also a celebration of women – past and present – and a discussion of what lies ahead in the Obama era.

The session, “Fulfilling the Dream: From King to Obama,” was held in the college’s Mary T. Christian auditorium, named for one of the Peninsula’s pioneering educators, activists and legislators.

State Sen. Mamie E. Locke, a Democrat who represents parts of Hampton and Newport News, was the honored guest, receiving Thomas Nelson’s Presidential Leadership Award from interim President Dr. Alvin J. Schexnider.

In her acceptance, Locke, a Brandon, Miss., native, invoked the name of her mentor, the legendary Democratic organizer Fannie Lou Hamer, whom Locke met as a freshman at Tougaloo College near Jackson, Miss.

“That person was someone who had a sixth-grade education,” Locke said, “had come came to the civil rights movement very late in life and was not the most eloquent when it came to speaking what we call the King’s English. But she was very well understood.”

Locke, 54, recalled one of Hamer’s favorite phrases: “She said it doesn’t matter if you have a Ph.D. or no B. It doesn’t matter if you went to Morehouse (College) or no house; we’re all in this together…

“As a result, I ended up on the (National) Mall last Tuesday” for President Barack Obama’s inauguration.

Locke, a former mayor of Hampton, resigned that position after joining the Virginia Senate in 2004. She also is dean of the School of Liberal Arts and Education and professor of political science at Hampton University.

In addition to a bachelor’s degree from Tougaloo, she has a master’s and a doctorate from Atlanta University. She sits on numerous boards in the state Senate including education and health; local government; rehabilitation and social services.

Fittingly, one of the audience members on Wednesday is a key local organizer for whom Locke has been a longtime mentor.

“It means a lot to me because I was one of her first students when she came to Hampton University” in 1981, said Gaylene Kanoyton, chairman of the Hampton Democratic Party, who was instrumental in helping Obama carry Virginia in November.

Kanoyton said what stands out most about Locke is “her passion for her politics, her passion for her community and her passion for her students.

“She always made sure we had strong dialogue,” Kanoyton said, “and that we had great background information for whatever we spoke about.”

Panel discussion members included Col. Anthony Reyes, garrison commander at Fort Monroe, who drew applause from the audience in answering, “How long will it take people to begin saying President Obama?”

“In the military – immediately,” said Reyes, a Hampton University graduate who returned to the area in May.

The Rev. Richard W. Wills Sr., pastor at First Baptist Church, Hampton, noted the parallels between the struggles of black people and the biblical children of Israel, which he said the Old Testament refers to as “a peoples’ exodus from a land of oppressive limitations and their hopeful entrance into the land of promise …

“Interestingly, the journey from King to Obama has been 40 years, the same period of time attributed to Israel’s ancient wander,” Wills said. “Could our four-decade pilgrimage since King’s prophetic pronouncement have some bearing with respect to its fulfillment?”

He also noted that Obama’s post-election speech Nov. 4 had echoes of King’s “I Have a Dream,” where Obama said: “The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even in one term, but America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there.”

Wills said that “time alone will determine how much closer we are to the ‘there’ of King’s dream,” and that hopefully, “our journey ‘there’ will be infinitely more abbreviated than previously imagined.”

After the session, the day’s honoree, Locke, advised that anyone considering public office should “begin in their community” as a grass-roots organizer.

“You don’t want to jump out and say, ‘Hey folks, I’m here to represent you; vote for me,’ and the people don’t know you.”

Locke also recalled one of the more poignant moment’s from last week’s inauguration. She said that “an elderly white gentleman who was with his daughter bursts into tears after the oath of office.

“He said he was so overcome that the country had reached a transformational moment.

“It’s just a beginning. It’s not the end of racism. It’s not end of inequality, but it’s the beginning of a transformation.”



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