In MLK speech, Turner says to ‘proceed’
It’s coming up on 50 years since the March on Washington as well as the year when Duke University first admitted African-American students. Duke’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Service of Celebration at Duke Chapel on Sunday recognized both the civil rights leader and commemorated 50 years of integration in higher education.
“Fifty years, 50 years. That’s a long time. Or is it?” said keynote speaker the Rev. William C. Turner, part of the first wave of African-American students at Duke and now a professor at Duke Divinity School as well as pastor of Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham. “It’s long or short depending on one’s lifetime,” he said, and whether you’re younger than 50 or older than 50.
“Fifty years ago, we were in the heat of the Civil Rights Movement,” Turner said, and Duke was a young school, younger than then-N.C. Central College. They could not fathom how pivotal those days were, he said.
Turner was in the fourth class of African-American students at Duke, and received his bachelor’s degree in engineering in 1971, followed by a Master of Divinity in 1974 and doctorate in religion in 1984. He has served as assistant provost and dean of Black Affairs and director of Black Church Affairs. He has taught theology, Black Church Studies and homiletics.
Originally from Richmond, Turner’s father worked for the railroad and took a detour to Durham one day. They stopped at Duke Chapel, Turner told hundreds of people gathered Sunday in the same building, and his father asked, “How do you like that, son?” Turner said he realized later than his father was planting the seed, and others in his generation knew that change was near.
Turner recalled his days at Duke in the late 1960s, and what Durham was like then, with the bustling historic African-American community of Hayti and the pervasive smell of Durham’s old cash crop, tobacco.
Turner took on the theme of the commemoration: “Praise, Protest, and Power: 50 Years in the Making,” and said he “did not come to praise Duke in a manner than is not uncritical.” There are scars, he said, and some students had bad experiences. He said there was shunning that cut to the core and those caught on campus at night and told to run.
He said he’s been black all his life, and at Duke now three-fourths of his life, and it’s too late to be ashamed or apologetic of either one.
When you stay at a place long enough, you fix what you can, Turner said, doing the best you can with what’s in your hands and hopefully turning it into a better place.
Protest is about power, Turner said. He said the question this coming year should be to ask if power is in the painful past or in the future.
Use the power that you have, Turner preached, in your brain as well as body, to make a difference. Proceed, he said.
Turner said he isn’t Martin Luther King Jr. but he can see like King: “From this mountaintop, I can see a glorious day if we proceed.”
The congregation gave him an “Amen.”