A gift to remember: Pictures tell story of local family’s tie to MLK

Photos show Ms. Exyie Mae Chambliss (dressed in white) with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he visited Suffolk.

SUFFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — It’s no secret that the seven cities in Hampton Roads are full of historical significance. There are many people and places forever a part of our nation’s narrative.

Some of it is well documented and easily recalled. But until recently, memories passed down by word of mouth were all one family had to remember their tie to a civil rights leader who made a stop in Suffolk in 1963.

Today, they have a picture that’s truly worth a thousand words.

In Suffolk’s Peanut Park, in 1963, people came from near and far for a voter registration rally and fundraiser for an upcoming march, and to catch a glimpse of a King, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to be exact. They had heard of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 and knew of his peaceful, non-violent approach to protests in Birmingham 8 years later.

And he had heard about Suffolk.

“Suffolk had never seen a day like that day,” said Clifford Chambliss, Jr. “It was a good place to come with people who had some courage and stood for what this country was all about. Can you imagine a man with such popularity and global notoriety coming to town? Our mother was on the host committee. Her assignment was to greet Dr. King at the airport and to remain with him the entire time.”

Long before integration and the Booker T Washington Elementary that sits in Suffolk now as a result, Ms. Exyie Mae Chambliss led a group of parents displeased with inequity in the Suffolk school system in a relentless fight.

“We had no gymnasium, no cafeteria, the library was one room,” said Chambliss. “So we saw how handicapped things were. The school board conceded and voted to build a new school called Booker T High School.”

Clifford’s oldest sister Edna was in the first graduating class. And soon after civil rights activist Moses Riddick graduated from what is now Hampton University, he joined with 11 other men including their father, Clifford B Chambliss, Sr., in forming the Independent Voters League to encourage African Americans to get involved in the process of effecting change.

“That energy coupled with the unions and ministerial bodies snow balled the movement to make a change in Suffolk,” said Chambliss. “Suffolk was a powerhouse for civic activity. We’ve been around and we’ve been fighting for a long time.”

The Chambliss siblings were born to difference makers. But it wasn’t until Clifford Junior’s children recently began researching their family history that they found the photos to match what they had long heard. And a family that’s put their stamp on history, is now enriched by a tangible reminder to fight on.

And two months after that picture was taken at Peanut Park in 1963 to galvanize people in civic engagement, 20 buses left Suffolk bound for the March on Washington where Dr. King gave his famous speech entitled “I Have A Dream.”