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James L. Rivers, 81, stands outside of the New Calvary Baptist Church in Norfolk. As a teenager, Rivers met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, who addressed the congregation in 1966, setting Rivers on a path of social activism.
James L. Rivers, 81, stands outside of the New Calvary Baptist Church in Norfolk. As a teenager, Rivers met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, who addressed the congregation in 1966, setting Rivers on a path of social activism.

 James L. Rivers grew up in Norfolk in the 1950s and 1960s - a southern city with opportunities and obstacles for a young Black man.

Rivers was the first generation in his family to graduate from college, earning degrees in chemistry and mathematics from the Norfolk branch of Virginia State College, the predecessor to Norfolk State University. But, as Black man, he also had to pay a poll tax before he could vote for the first time in the early 1960s.

He became active in the civil rights movement as a student at Booker T. Washington High School. He met Martin Luther King Jr., joined sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, and fought to bring voting rights to Black Virginians.

His calling to civil rights continued through service in the Navy, a long career as a counselor in Virginia prisons and jails, and decades of work with the Norfolk chapter of the NAACP, where he served as president. He’s been a deacon at New Calvary Baptist Church in Norfolk for four decades.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Everything was thrown at us – ‘us’ meaning us Black folk – in order to keep us away from the polls to vote.

They went through the literacy (test) – you had to recite certain parts of the Constitution. And then they went to the poll tax – you had to pay ‘X’ number of dollars to vote.

It was just a struggle all of the time, in terms of civil rights. It was just being put down for Blacks and people of color. It was a struggle all the time.

When I was in college (in the early 60s) as a student leader at Norfolk State, we did sit-ins at Kresge’s and other department stores. In terms of the integration of schools and the integration of the (lunch) counters, I was doing all of those things. Getting civil rights and the rights to really vote to make a difference in our cities and our state and in our nation.

I do remember the process of going down to the (voter) registrar's office in City Hall.

(It was) very uncomfortable, with the stares and all of those things. And being called "boy," you know, very, very uncomfortable and very, very demeaning to get yourself in the position to vote. Just the actual position to vote was not very comfortable at all.

The Voting Rights Act (of 1965) spurred interest in the Black and African-American community about getting out and being civic-minded – in terms of the voting and the rights to vote. It really, really, really did.

That brought up an interest in politics and the local government and in the state government, in the national government. So more people (voted), because of the poll tax being gone, literacy testing being gone.

It was a massive change.

I am 81 years of age. I've been living in this area my whole life.

My parents were farm kids from Carolina. My dad was from South Carolina, and my mother was from North Carolina. But they stressed the importance of civic engagement. They stressed the importance of education. They stressed the importance of being involved and making things happen the way you would have them happen, for the betterment in your life.

My mother went to the sixth grade and my father went to the fifth grade. Both of them couldn't read and write, by the way, but they gave me every ample opportunity to become educated.

They were just phenomenally up and involved. And they were, of course, voters. They went to the polls and they voted. But it was just a struggle all of the time.

(My activism) started basically in high school because I became a member of the Norfolk branch of the NAACP as a youth. I just continued through high school and into college.

Dr. Milton Reid, who was the former owner of the Journal & Guide and a civil rights activist, brought Martin Luther King Jr. to New Calvary Baptist Church.

Many other ministers in the area here were afraid to have Dr. King come because of any retributions, so they wouldn't invite him.

He was extremely brave, because that was, I think, a year or two before he got assassinated, the last time he was in our pulpit.

The young people, old people, middle aged people, people from all socioeconomic groups came just to be in his -- Dr. King's -- presence. And it was just a magnificent and wonderful time to have him in my church, of all places, to deliver a sermon. And I was just just enthralled with pretty much every word that came out of his mouth in terms of encouragement to us, both on a spiritual level as well as on a social level and a human level.

I think probably that's one of the major reasons why I figured in the sphere of political action and social action that I had in the rest of my life. He had a great impact.

Voting should be a number one priority…because of the struggle that African Americans have had in terms of their existence here, in America.

Not going to the registrar's office and registering unless it's a national election – it just bothers me. Because all politics starts locally. When we look at anything – the street lights, the guards standing for children to stop at school crossings, your library, your public schools – all of those things affect you personally, locally.

Put the person in there to do what you want them to do for you, and your community and your family.

Get involved. Get involved in the Republican Party, get involved in the Democratic Party. But if you want to stay independent, fine and dandy. But know the issues and know your community and know what you need for your family. But get registered and vote.

Louis Hansen is co-founder and senior editor of The Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism at WHRO. He’s been a journalist for more than 20 years in New York, Philadelphia, Hampton Roads and Silicon Valley. He was an enterprise and investigative reporter for The Virginian-Pilot for more than a decade, covering state government, military affairs and criminal justice. He served as a combat correspondent in Iraq and the Persian Gulf, covered the Virginia legislature and state and federal elections. Hansen has won national and state awards for his work. His profile of a teenage gang member, “The Girl Who Took Down the Gang,” was published in a collection of the ten best newspaper narratives of 2012.