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In the 1980s, a group fought to get Martin Luther King honored in Henrico County

Posted at 3:51 PM, Feb 28, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-28 18:22:52-05

HENRICO COUNTY, Va. -- More than 30 years ago, the annual MLK Day Commemoration Celebration was created, but not without a struggle.

In 1986, Martin Luther King Jr. Day became a nationally-recognized holiday on the third Monday in January.

The Virginia legislature then combined King's celebration with the existing Lee-Jackson Day, a day that honored Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

In 1987, the Chesterfield County Board of supervisors added the new holiday into the county calendar. But that was not the case in Henrico.

"Initially we were surprised to learn that Henrico County had not adopted the King holiday," Chris Archer, member of MLK Commemoration Celebration Committee, said.

"We had to come up with a strategy to get Henrico County to adopt the King holiday as an official holiday for the schools," MLK Celebration Commemoration Committee member Helen Harris said.

So a small group of Henrico County Civic League leaders began pushing for change and came up with a petition to convince the Henrico Board of Supervisors to consider adopting the holiday.

"We thought we had won," said Archer

Racial tension was high at the time and county leadership lacked diversity and inclusion, members of the league said.

"That's what we were noticing, Henrico did not include all of its people," Frank Thornton, current Henrico County Supervisors and member of MLK Commemoration Celebration committee, said. "That was a time when we didn't have any African-American principals."

When the league presented the petition, they said only one board member agreed with them.

"A news report came in one afternoon that said the board had rejected the King holiday and strangely the black leaders who were asking for the holiday, did not appear," Archer said. "Well, we didn’t know anything about it."

And that's when the group really began to push for change.

"We asked the county how come we don't have any African-American principals. How come we don't have as many African-Americans in certain departments with the county? And so we saw there was a need for political action," said Thornton.

They held marches, forums, and press conferences.

"I don’t know how we did this, but we actually got parents to keep their kids out of school and some of them would actually take their kids to school and go back and get them. And bring them to the holiday," Archer recalled.

Even though the board rejected their request, in 1987 the league created the Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration Celebration. It was held at Rising Mt Zion Church off Hartman Street.

"The crowd, I mean it was just too much," Archer said. "It was a cold, rainy day and people were outside the windows."

For two years, the league recognized MLK Day on their own until, according to Thornton, the school board gained new members.

"There were three new members that came on the school board and this group was more open to a King holiday," Thornton said.

"In 1989, they relented and agreed to let us have it as a recognized holiday," Archer remembered.

From that year forward, the Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration Celebration became a well-known event in Henrico to honor Dr. King, with a variety of speakers to share inspirational words.

"My generation was taught it's okay to complain, but roll your sleeves up to see what you can do to make and bring forth positive changes," Thorton said. "That's in connection to what Dr. King was talking about."

"We want to make sure our kids don’t forget that and why Dr. King needs to be honored," Archer said.

The last three remaining members of the Henrico County Civic League, now the MLK Commemoration Celebration Committee, are hoping that the next generation will continue making a difference in the world.

"It's on you now. What you have to do. You stand on our shoulders. But it's something that you must do," Harris said. "Our mission has been accomplished."