By Harry Minium

When Martin Luther King Jr. marched across the South, often being shoved, spat upon and arrested, he said that he dreamed of a day when people would be judged "on the content of their character" and not their skin color.

The movement he started helped make it possible for many African American men and women to enter the political system and gain real power.

Kenny Alexander, who was 2 when King was assassinated, is among those who benefitted from the efforts of King and so many others who took part in the civil rights movement.

A Norfolk native and a graduate of Old Dominion University, Alexander became the first Black mayor of Norfolk in 2016.

Fittingly, Alexander will be the guest speaker on Jan. 21, when ODU holds its 36th annual Martin Luther King Jr. observance. He will pay tribute to King and others who sacrificed and will also speak to the racial and political turmoil in America.

Because of COVID-19 restrictions, the event will be held virtually. It is open to the University community and the general public.

Click here to register for MLK Observance

Alexander was raised in modest circumstances in Norfolk's Berkley neighborhood and is a first-gen student, meaning the first in his family to graduate from college. A graduate of Lake Taylor High School, he earned an associate degree in mortuary science from John Taylor Community College in Chester, Virginia, and then enrolled at ODU, where he earned a bachelor's degree in political science in 1990.

He put the political science degree to good use. He has long been a community leader in Norfolk's southside, where he was president of the Beacon Light Civic League. He also served on the Norfolk Planning Commission and was elected vice chair.

He entered the General Assembly in 2002, handily winning the House of Delegates seat vacated by Jerrauld Jones when he was appointed a judge.

Alexander won re-election four times before running for the state Senate seat that became vacant when Yvonne B. Miller died.

He ran for mayor in 2016, capturing 52% of the vote against a sitting city council member and the city sheriff. He had no opposition in 2020 and won 96% of votes.

Alexander was a centrist in the General Assembly who although a Democrat, often worked with Republicans. He was backed for mayor by a diverse group of supporters, including influential members of the business community and prominent Republicans.

Surviving members of the "Norfolk 17," the 17 teenagers who were the first African Americans to attend previously all-white schools in Norfolk, will be honored with the Hugo Owens Martin Luther King Jr. Award during the event.

The 17 were specially selected by Black leaders for their strength and academic prowess because leaders knew the students would face severe discrimination. They entered school in February 1959 and on the first day, as many entered Norview High School, they were pummeled with rocks, sticks and spit.

Norfolk Police provided only partial protection for them. For the rest of the school year, students said they were often pushed down stairways, had personal items stolen and were subject to verbal and physical abuse.

In spite of the discrimination, all 17 attended every day of that school year.

The city honored the Norfolk 17 in 2019 on the 60th anniversary of the desegregation of Norfolk's schools. The city plans to dedicate a monument to them in the next year or two.

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