As the dozens of athletes impacted by Steve Swope in Colonial Beach stood on stage behind him Wednesday evening, the former coach explained the motivation behind the unity event and rally in support of Black Lives Matter.
“I’m standing here today because one of my sons behind me was hurt last week,” Swope said. “And when a son gets hurt, what does a parent do? A parent’s going to act and then a parent is going to react because you’re never going to let your son get hurt in this world.”
The retired Drifters basketball and baseball coach wasn’t referring to his biological son. He was talking about John Parker, a former King George High School star athlete who lives in Colonial Beach.
Parker spoke out against former Colonial Beach mayor, town council member and high school coach and athletic director Wayne Kennedy, who made disparaging remarks about the black and LGBTQ communities on Facebook earlier this month.
Four days after Parker and others expressed concern about Kennedy having his name on the football stadium at Colonial Beach High School, the school system took down the signs that read C. Wayne Kennedy Field.
Kennedy has since said he had a “moral meltdown” and apologized for his comments.
Still, Swope didn’t want division to seep into the small town, so he spearheaded the rally that saw approximately 300 people—black and white—descend on Town Hill for singing by Burkett Lyburn & All Together Gospel Singers and inspirational words from several clergy in the community.
“What we did was band together,” Swope said. “And we’re going to make Colonial Beach that one great unity town.”
But speakers that participated in the event warned that introspection must first take place in the wake of the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer and other incidents of police brutality and racial injustice.
The Rev. Ulysses Turner of Beulah Baptist Church in Lively stepped to the stage wearing cargo shorts, a T-shirt and tennis shoes and noted he didn’t resemble the other pastors sitting behind him because of the way he dressed.
He said the nation dresses the part, but is “actually like me, out of place.”
“It’s not displaying what it wants the world and our communities to think,” Turner said. “It’s not showing unity. It’s not showing love. It’s not showing peace. It’s not showing joy. It’s not showing justice for all. … I’m hoping America can finally get in line and start playing the part it has been portraying to the world for so long.”
Turner compared the current climate in the nation to the Elmina Castle, where enslaved Africans were brought in from different kingdoms in West Africa and brutalized. He said there was a nearby church where members knew of the atrocities taking place but remained silent.
Turner said in the U.S., “we need to clean our castle.” He said blacks and whites in Colonial Beach and surrounding areas should worship together and perform community outreach as one.
“I’m quite sure some in that church right next to the Elmina Castle were appalled by the things going on next door,” Turner said. “The problem was they kept silent. I’m here to let everyone know it’s time to lift your voices. We can no longer be silent.”
Pastor Denise Marth of New Life Ministries in Colonial Beach also addressed the need for whites to join minorities in speaking out.
Marth said she once believed she was doing enough by not being racist herself. She said she now realizes more is required.
“I’m here to admit we have not fought it like we should,” Marth said.
Attorney Dondrae Maiden, who is also a professor at Germanna Community College, said racism exists in Colonial Beach, particularly in a Facebook group that shares news and information about the town.
The Rev. David Cunningham, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Colonial Beach, noted there was once a division in town, where whites lived on one side of Colonial Avenue and blacks lived on the other side.
“We have to cross the Colonial Avenues that exist in our minds and our hearts,” said the Rev. Nicholas Szobota of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church.
Szobota said he hopes white people in attendance Wednesday felt uncomfortable and continue to feel uncomfortable “until God’s justice is done.”
The Rev. Earl Howerton Jr. of Little Zion Baptist Church in Oak Grove said racism is a sickness and illness that can’t be eradicated by legislation, but can by a change of heart.
“The law can’t make a man love me, but it can stop him from lynching me,” said Howerton, paraphrasing Martin Luther King Jr.
Howerton offered prayer for law enforcement officers in attendance that they become advocates for justice, peace and unity. He prayed for Swope that he’ll “continue to be a light in this dark world,” despite the scrutiny he’s faced from longtime white friends about organizing the rally.
“If you don’t support what’s going on today,” Swope said, “I really don’t want to be your friend.”
Howerton said he was inspired by the turnout and the unity shown at the event. He said Colonial Beach residents have turned the scripture found in Genesis—the first book of the Bible—asking “Am I my brother’s keeper?” from a question into an exclamation, showing “I am my brother’s keeper!”
He said the current generation “isn’t here to say please” but is demanding change.
“We’re not going to stop or rest,” Howerton said, “until all God’s children are blessed.”