DURHAM -- Arts, the past, present and future and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were woven together with a common thread at Duke University’s annual MLK celebration Sunday.
Held at Duke Chapel, the theme was “Building on a Legacy of Civil Rights: Arts, Architecture and Activism.
According to the program, King “was an architect of peace and humanity.”
“Duke university’s 2017 Martin Luther King Commemoration Committee is guided by the understanding that modern architecture stands at the intersection of activism, human rights and inclusion,” the program states.
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Sunday’s keynote speaker, Durham architect Phil Freelon, focused on that theme.
Freelon’s works include the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta and Durham Station on Chapel Hill Street.
Freelon said there were injustices suffered, rights restricted, and minds and hearts closed and hardened in King’s era -- as there are now.
“There were then -- as there are now -- also significant accomplishments and movement toward the unity that Dr. King so often spoke of …,” Freelon said. “Each of us must find our own way to keep Dr. King’s dream alive and help move this nation toward his ideal vision of America.”
While some use their voices, spread love from a pulpit or engage in the political process, Freelon said he found architecture to be a way to create environments that are uplifting, inspiring and set the tone for sharing knowledge and facilitating cultural exchange.
At the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Freelon said celebration, joy and triumph were the goals of design, along with creating a welcoming space.
“Yes there are difficult stories -- segregation, slavery, and those are told -- we must tell the truth -- but at the end of the day, we did not want this to be about victims and perpetrators,” he said.
Toward the end of his message Sunday, Freelon took time to reflect on Julian Abele, an African American who designed Duke University’s original campus, a fact which remained hidden from the Jim Crow-era public for decades.
“When you think about the situation of our country in the ’20s and through the ’50s it’s even more remarkable what this gentleman was able to accomplish,” Freelon said.
Tiana Horn, president of Duke’s Black Student Alliance, also referenced Abele when mentioning that King was asked to speak at Page Auditorium rather than Duke Chapel during a campus visit in the ’60s.
She described architecture as powerful and important.
“It takes an empty space and makes it a place that is inhabitable,” Horn said. “It builds the foundation for who we let into our society and who we try to let out.”
Attending Sunday’s observance, Alamance County resident Geoff Hathaway also reflected on art.
Hathaway is a musician and former Orange County arts commissioner and friend of the Freelon family.
“The same struggles that we see in the Civil Rights era, we see it in the arts community as artists,” Hathaway said. “There’s going to be a struggle in the arts just as there’s a struggle in civil rights issues -- and there is a connection -- but it is the arts that breaks the barrier quicker than any other barrier to be broken.”
Art is in more than music and dance, he said, “it’s in architecture, cooking, science and every element of life.”
Art was one of the draws for Charlotte resident Candice Livingston to attend Sunday’s observance.
Livingston’s uncle, Bill Pinkney, painted the portrait of Abele on display at the university to honor the architect.
“I think it’s pretty awesome that even during the future, the things accomplished in the past over the years were a change for everyone,” Livingston said.
Duke president Richard Brodhead described it as celebrations of new births that are not the end of the story.
“To me personally, MLK Day is the day when we get together to celebrate what has been accomplished, to remind ourselves what has not yet been accomplished to recommit ourselves to the work of doing our share of the accomplishment to the end of that story,” Brodhead said.