POWHATAN – Barely a word was spoken as the large group marched through the Powhatan Village.
They had gathered in front of the county administration building at 10 a.m. on Saturday, June 6. The Rev. Jerimy Ford offered a prayer to the people gathered in “one voice and one heart” and asked God to help them “move forward from this place and this moment to radically change the world.”
They want to make sure “this step is the first of many,” he prayed.
When the prayer finished, the white pastor put a little African-American girl named Lizzie Caudle, whose family attends Passion Community Church where he works, on his shoulders and started the slow walk on sidewalks to the Powhatan County Courthouse followed by at least 100 people.
When they arrived, they stood silently in a circle in front of the courthouse, many with a fist raised in solidarity. Then the first voice cried out “no justice, no peace,” another shouted, “I can’t breathe,” and the group began clapping before turning to listen to the speakers.
Organizers of the Powhatan Anti-Racism Coalition Peace March said the hour-long event that took place in the Village was exactly what they envisioned. Jordan Walthall, who started the group that organized the march, said that for their first gathering, the event was beyond successful and was “proof that our county is ready for change.”
The native Powhatan resident said she cares about the community but believes it can do better. The march is where they decided to start, but in the future they want to work in the areas of education and law enforcement accountability, she said.
“We want to be heard. We want people to understand that black lives do matter, and all lives can’t matter until they do,” she said.
When planning the march, organizers reached out to and worked with the Powhatan County Sheriff’s Office and the Powhatan chapter of the NAACP to help bridge unity and make sure the event stayed peaceful and hopeful, said Heather Kerns, another organizer. In addition to lining the route, some deputies and sheriff Brad Nunnally walked in the march.
“This is just the beginning; we are here to spark change. We are here to really make this community better, and this is just step one. We are going to continue to move forward and really bring a change to Powhatan,” Kerns said.
The main speaker for the event was the Rev. Darnell Carruthers, pastor of Greenbriar Baptist Church in Powhatan. He said his pride in speaking to the gathered crowd stemmed not from self-affirmation or a political agenda but “from the warmth felt by this community quilt that I am now laying eyes on – a quilt wherein we are all a patch connected to another.”
The pastor gave an impassioned speech using wisdom of old to demonstrate the continued need for change today, quoting a diverse range of historical figures – John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Louis Armstrong, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., William Shakespeare – as well as the Bible.
He talked about having his world view changed when he joined the U.S. Army 34 years ago, serving alongside a diverse range of people. But despite their different races, backgrounds, traditions, or histories, they were a “family in the surrogate sense” and the same red blood flowed in all of their veins. Serving in the army made clear to him the possibilities of global citizens and mankind as a whole, he said.
Carruthers talked about the purpose of the group gathering together in the Powhatan Village – not to point fingers but to hold hands.
“I did not come here to blame, I came to build. I did not come to criticize, I came to galvanize. I didn’t come to ridicule, I came to reconcile in the spirit of a vanguard and not a vigilante. I came in peace – please let that be understood,” he said.
Carruthers said he hopes he can contribute to the necessary conversation about culture, cure, and carrying on as a united community.
“America is currently torn between truth and tradition, conscience and culture, inclusion or exclusion, love or hate. America has two spirits warring over the same soul – alienation and isolation … divided in its domicile. America is finger pointing and not holding hands, shoving and not hugging. You see the trouble we are in,” he said.
Dr. Gregory Beechaum, pastor of Little Zion Baptist Church in Powhatan, also spoke during the event, saying people can no longer lie and say they don’t see skin color – “we see it, but more importantly, we see sin and injustice in our land.”
“This is not only a black and white issue; this is about right and wrong. This is an American problem. This is a human decency problem. This is a heart issue. This is a vision problem. So we are standing together today on this morning recognizing that we are different but we believe every human being has a right to breathe and live,” Beechaum said.
For the United States to deliver on the promises of the Constitution, he said there must be four main changes: change must take place in the individual hearts of every human being; people must teach their children to love one another and to learn the full history of the nation; 11 a.m. on Sunday can no longer be the most segregated hour of the week, and communities must represent the different cultures within our society.
“We must be protected and we must serve everyone equally. There must be unity within our families, our neighborhoods, and our schools. There must be unity in our workplaces, in our marketplaces, and in our civic arenas. There must be unity, there must be peace, there must be love, and there must be joy,” he said.
To wrap up his speech, Beechaum asked the crowd to recognize a period of silence for eight minutes and 46 seconds – the amount of time that George Floyd was pinned to the ground with a knee to his neck by a Minneapolis police officer. During the silence, people alternately stood, kneeled, and sat as they prayed and meditated.
Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, began to speak but was interrupted when there was a medical emergency and did not continue after it was over. State Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Chesterfield, also marched but did not speak.
Also at the event but not part of it was a group of men and women standing in front of the Confederate memorial statue that sits on private land within the courthouse lawn. The memorial is owned by the Sons of the Confederate Veterans Camp 1382 Powhatan Troop.
The group didn’t speak before or during the peace march and gathering, and after the medical emergency, they brought their cooler of water bottles to share with the protestors.
Ken Morrison, commander of the Powhatan troop, said they weren’t there officially representing Camp 1382 and not everyone present was a member. They were simply “concerned citizens of Powhatan” who were not coming from a “place of antagonism or aggression.” Given how Confederate statues in Richmond have been vandalized, the group was “coming from a place of uncertainty because nobody contacted us,” he said. He added that the group did not know who would be coming to the march and that, if he had known that it would be mostly Powhatan residents, they wouldn’t have been as concerned.
The march drew people of all ages and different races. Dalynn Prince of Powhatan said she attended because she wants to see people come together and truly be treated equally. Seeing all of the people standing side by side was emotionally overwhelming, she said.
“To see the love from all sides – black, white, no matter what your race is – that was the biggest part of everybody coming out,” she said.
Prince said she was especially impacted by the silent recognition of Floyd and was praying and crying as the seconds ticked by.
“For a man to be on the ground for that long saying he can’t breathe – that could have been my brother, that could have been my father, that could have been anyone out here, so it was very emotional,” she said.
Paul Myers of Midlothian attended the march with his wife and four children. Myers grew up in Powhatan, is involved in groups here, and wanted to support friends who were coming. He and his wife agreed it was important to bring their children to the march.
“I think it is important to set an example to show them that we want to treat everyone with kindness and stand up for people when they are being wronged,” he said.
Many people may be silent on this issue because they don’t want to “rock the boat” or seem to be getting political, Myers said.
“But this isn’t political, this is a human rights thing,” he said.
Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.