Young protesters did Smithfield proud

Published 10:01 pm Tuesday, June 30, 2020

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Saturday’s Black Lives Matter march and rally in downtown Smithfield embodied the very best of our constitutional right “peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Well over 150 people exercised that right in a spirit that was good natured, embracing and positive. A majority of them were young, and a significant percentage — I estimate at least 40% — were white. There were also oldsters in the mix, who came to lend their support for these messengers of change. All in all, it was an event that Smithfield and Isle of Wight County residents should be proud of.

Congressman Robert Scott attended. He marched with the group from Riverside Park to The Smithfield Times, where he joined other speakers on the gazebo stage in calling for equal justice for everyone.

As we walked down Institute Street, Scott said this was his third march that day.

“Everybody feels compelled to protest,” he said. “Now, we have to channel that into voting.”

He delivered the same message to the marchers at the gazebo.

“Remember, elections have consequences. If you’re not going to register to vote, don’t complain,” he said.

Two Town Council members, Valerie Butler and Beth Heywood, were the only elected local government officials who attended. No members of the General Assembly were present.

Butler, who is also president of the county NAACP chapter, welcomed the marchers to downtown, and intoned participants to continue working for change in policing, education, housing and other areas of need in the black community.

Several speakers met head-on a comment that is often heard locally that “we don’t have a problem here.” We do, they said, and the problem is the societal impact of 400 years of racism. It’s the disadvantage that blacks face from birth living alongside a white community that has advantages just because of race.

It often takes a preacher to cut to the chase, and Saturday was no exception. The Rev. Litton Marks of the United Church of Christ addressed the absence of most local political leaders at the event.

“The leadership of Isle of Wight and Smithfield have a habit of not showing up where they’re needed,” Litton said.

Litton, a 30-year military retiree and veteran of Vietnam and Iraq, is clearly not a fan of the current administration, saying President Trump “has moved continually in the direction of systemic racism, of white male privilege.”

He then turned to the nation’s gun culture, declaring “There is no way automatic weapons need to be on the streets. They’re killing young people.”

Retired Smithfield High School government teacher Jerry Tenney, who for years encouraged every student under his tutelage to register to vote when they turned 18, was invited to speak to the crowd, which included many of his former students.

Tenney said he, along with many in his generation, have had to unlearn the lessons of their youth with respect to race, and that he has found that journey to be liberating.

“This (event) is a call for justice for those who have known injustice,” Tenney said.

The march and rally were organized by Karra Johnson, a Virginia Tech biology major. She personally talked to town officials, obtained a march permit, coordinated speakers and handled other details, including making sure bottled water stations were on hand at both the park and downtown.

She wore a huge smile as the event neared its end.

“I’m just thrilled” by its success, she said.

She added that, as a biology major, “I’m definitely out of my area of expertise.”

To that, I would say, no, Karra, you were definitely not outside your comfort area. You were exactly where a talented, energetic young person should be, and a sizable portion of your hometown is proud of what you did.


The setting

When The Smithfield Times built the Gazebo Stage nearly three decades ago, it was done primarily to provide a suitable stage for Friday night concerts. Over the years, its use expanded as other events were held there, becoming something of an informal town square for a community that has never had one.

Saturday, however, the Gazebo and the lot facing it truly became Smithfield’s public square. Its location and size make it the perfect site for all manner of public gatherings, and the town’s decision to buy it should ensure that it will be there for generations to come.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is