Chapel Hill remembers King, honors Lee

Jan. 21, 2013 @ 04:59 PM

Lillian Lee got a big surprise Monday while attending the annual Martin King Luther King Jr. Day celebration at First Baptist Church.

The longtime Chapel Hill educator and wife of former Chapel Hill mayor Howard Lee was called to the pulpit to receive the annual Rebecca Clark Award for her service to residents of the town.

“Students and parents still walk up to her and thank her for her service,” said Delores Bailey, executive director EmPOWERment Inc., a local nonprofit that engages in community development.

The award is named after Rebecca Clark, a longtime community leader and political organizer who died in 2009.

Lillian Lee, who spent almost her entire career in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, was known far and wide for her commitment to registering high school students to vote.

Lee said she often told students that in order to graduate they must pass all of their courses and become a registered voter.

“I am happy to say that I was instrumental in registering hundreds of high school students to vote,” Lee said. “I said to seniors several things are going to have to happen for you to graduate -- you are going to have to pass all of your classes and you’re going to have to register to vote.”

Like many speakers before and after her, Lee noted Monday’s presidential inauguration, which was the second for President Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president.

She shared a story about helping a 79-year-old woman register and vote for the first time in the 2008 election.

“She had lived her whole life in Chapel Hill,” Lee said. “I don’t know how Ms. Rebecca Clark missed her.”

The Community Church of Chapel Hill received the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Community Service Award.

Sponsored by the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP, the celebration began with a rally at the Peace and Justice Plaza on Franklin Street. After the rally, participants assembled for a march to First Baptist Church where they were treated to music by the Community Church of Chapel Hill Unitarian Universalist Choir and the St. Joseph Male Chorus.

Thurman Couch, a Chapel Hill native and director of operations for Couch & Associates in Durham, gave the keynote speech in which he urged children to obey their parents and to stay in school.

“We believed it when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., said that education is the way,” said Couch, who was among the black students to integrate Chapel Hill High School in the 1960s.

A former pro football player who played for the San Francisco 49ers, Couch said a good education will pave the way for the youth of today to continue the work started by King and others who led and participated in the struggle.

“The one thing I wanted to do more than anything was something for my family,” Couch said. “I wanted to make my family proud.”

Couch was critical of the Chapel Hill public schools, saying too many African American children are underperforming, even though the district has a reputation for being one of the best in the nation.

“No student should be left behind in Chapel Hill,” Couch said.