DANVILLE, Va. – Historians will tell you the importance of looking to the past to understand the current fight for racial equality and justice.
Part of that past is a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights Movement that happened in Danville on June 10, 1963.
Reverend Thurman Echols Jr. was 16 years old on that day, but he found himself in the middle of the fight for civil rights.
"We were marching for desegregation of lunch counters, theaters, just everything was segregated," Echols said of growing up in Danville at the time.
Echols said on the morning of June 10, he and other protesters gathered for a peaceful protest on the Danville Courthouse steps. He said Danville police showed up a short time later.
“That’s when policemen came and told me I was under arrest,” said Echols, who said he was the first protester arrested that day. “Locked just a few of us up at first and then, later on, a lot of my classmates and schoolmates and persons who went to school, grew up here, they went to jail also.”
Echols said that day took a violent turn at night when people mobilized to pray for protesters arrested earlier in the day.
June 10, 1963, later became known as “Bloody Monday.”
“How June 10th really got the name ‘Bloody Monday’ was the night of June 10th,” Echols said. “That’s when they marched from Bible Way on Grant Street over to here, and that’s when people were beaten up. That’s when it was an awful night, June 10th.”
Danville police and deputized city workers injured at least 47 people and arrested 60. The violence of the day drew national attention and prompted several visits from the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
"I've heard him (King) say and others in the Civil Rights Movement had not Birmingham been the focal point of the Civil Rights Movement, Danville would have, but they had to put all of their energy and forces into Birmingham," Echols said.
Echols also shared that his arrest prompted police to also arrest his parents on a charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
Echols said he can see the similarities between the fight for justice and equality when he was marching in the 1960s, with the current push for equality in 2020.
"If anybody thinks that we have arrived, they're mistaken," Echols said. "We've still made a lot of progress, but there's a lot of progress that needs to be made."
Echols wrote the proposal to have the “Bloody Monday” historic marker erected in Danville. It was dedicated in 2007.
Historians say one key aspect of moving forward in America will be to recognize and reckon with the impact slavery has had across the country, even after it was abolished in 1865.
“If we see America, we see remnants of slavery,” said Dr. Wornie Reed, director of the Race and Social Policy Research Center at Virginia Tech. “There is no America as we know it without slavery. It’s basically that simple.”
In the late 19th century, Black Codes, which were laws that limited the freedom of African Americans, voter suppression following America’s Reconstruction period and the birth of Jim Crow laws and segregation paved the way for the continued legal oppression of Black Americans.
“These are the kinds of things that happened, and around 1900, it was complete,” Reed said. “In Virginia, in 1902, they had a constitutional convention where they pretty much made it extremely difficult for Blacks to vote.”
The obstacles Black Americans faced touched every aspect of life.
"With the Redemption, the end of Reconstruction in the 1880s and 1890s, systems were built to reinstate white supremacy and those systems carried into the 20th century," said Molly Michelmore, head of the history department at Washington and Lee University. "Those systems create a whole host of inequalities that we can see in health statistics, that we can see in the racial wealth gap, that we can see in educational attainment. That history, both during the period of slavery and then the sort of retreat from Reconstruction, all of those are still with us today."
People across Southwest and Central Virginia fought back against those systems, protesting against segregated food service in Lynchburg, in support of integration in Farmville and demonstrating in downtown Roanoke after two Black women were denied educational opportunities.
Now there is a growing push to examine how America's history, from slavery to segregation, impacts the country to this day through systemic racism.
“Looking at how because of people’s racist ideas that come from positions of power, how they keep people, based solely on skin color, how they keep them in places of oppression,” said Dr. Deneen Evans, co-owner of Mosaic Mental Wellness and Health in Roanoke. “How they’re denied access to proper health care, proper mental health care. How they’re given inadequate education based on a zip code, which in our country, a lot of times is based on skin color and race.”
As this renewed call for racial justice and equality rings clear, Echols says it is important to recognize where we’ve been to pave the way for a future where all people are truly treated equally.
“I think people misunderstand what young people, what people are saying ‘Black Lives Matter,’” Echols said. “They’re not saying from a racial standpoint that other people don’t matter. They’re saying that, ‘also, Black Lives Matter,’ and that’s important that Black people be inclusive of whatever you’re doing.”