Speakers at Durham’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day march and noon service urged listeners to “keep fighting” and not let the gains of the Civil Rights Movement be reversed.
Several noted the rhetoric and programs of the Trump Administration.
Sen. Floyd McKissick, who represents Durham in the N.C. Senate, recalled the threats that his family faced when they helped integrate Durham’s schools in the 1960s.
“We cannot allow our country, because we have a lack of moral leadership, to return to those days,” he told the crowd at First Presbyterian Church. “It’s up to each of us not to let those voices of fear ... those voices that would divide us, to succeed.”
U.S. Rep. David Price, D-4th District, called the annual celebration a time to take stock and said the country is falling short of King’s goals. “We’ve lost some momentum, and we face some great dangers,” Price said. “There’s an effort to roll back the gains we’ve made.”
Price wondered what King might say about the recent tax reform bill, which Price said favors the wealthy; the government’s treatment of refugees; and the continued fight over health coverage. In a reference to the biblical Book of Daniel, Price said he believed King’s verdict would be the same one conferred upon Belshazzar: “You’ve been weighed in the balances and found wanting.”
But King also knew there would be setbacks in the fight for equality and justice. “So let’s use this day” to summon “the determination to resist voices of division and hate,” Price said.
Melvin Montford, director of the N.C. A. Philip Randolph Institute, said the 1963 March on Washington where King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech led to passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. Montford went down a list of still unfulfilled pieces of legislation: affordable health care, a guaranteed minimum income for those who cannot work, full employment and pure air and water. The works of King and civil rights leader Randolph convince him that “we’ve got to keep fighting,” Montford said.
Messages of hope
Others gave messages of hope.
MaryAnn Black, who represents Durham in the N.C. House, said she understands the terror that prejudice can unleash. She told the congregation about having to take cover when she was growing up because the Ku Klux Klan was said to be riding near her family’s house. “It is clear we have a long way to go, although we have accomplished a lot,” Black said.
She is hopeful, and as evidence she told about students at N.C. Central University who packaged diapers, food and other items for people in need early Monday. “I know that we have a great future because [these students] are giving and giving,” she said.
Wendy Jacobs, chairwoman of the Durham County Board of Commissioners, told about her family’s recent trip to India, where they visited the home of Mahatma Gandhi.
“The first thing that I saw was a portrait of Martin Luther King,” Jacobs said. Although the two men never met, Gandhi’s writings inspired King. The power of that inspiration is “a reminder of why this day is so important,” Jacobs said.
Before the service, marchers gathered in the brisk cold outside the N.C. Mutual Life Insurance Company building, then marched on Chapel Hill Street to First Presbyterian. Members of TROSA, a nonprofit substance abuse treatment program, had made signs for marchers to carry. The signs bore statements like “Fight to Unite,” “Keep the Dream Alive” and “Together as One.”
John Jarrett made his own sign, stating “I Am A Man,” the sign that the sanitation workers in Memphis were carrying in 1968 when King went to support their strike. “The point they were trying to make was, I am a man,” Jarrett said.
The C-SPAN bus, which is touring all 50 state capitals, made a stop at the march, and visitors were able to look at videos, interactive exhibits and a portable studio during quick tours of the bus interior.
Quanita Avery, who was at the march with her son Christopher, 5, said the King celebration “brings communities together,” people from all backgrounds and beliefs.
For Rodney Warren, the day reminds people to try and get along, and look out for each other. “I think that’s the message that he was trying to get across,” Warren said.
Joyce Chapman was carrying a sign she made that read, “We Came In Peace to Fight for Justice” and the King quote “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.” She was at the march with her 8-week-old son Gene, bundled up in a carriage. “Ever since I was born, my parents took me to the [King Day] march in Chapel Hill,” said Chapman, who now lives in Durham. “I wanted to continue that tradition with my newborn.”