The theme throughout Chapel Hill-Carrboro’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration Monday morning and into the early afternoon was that King’s message is as relevant as ever today.
The keynote speaker at First Baptist Church, N.C. Sen. Valerie Foushee quickly brought current politics into her speech, saying President Donald Trump “plays chicken with a dictator like a schoolyard bully,” referring to tweets about nuclear weapons that Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un have exchanged recently.
Foushee referenced Trump often, pointing to his history of fighting housing discrimination claims as a real estate mogul, his objectifying women, his calling Mexicans criminals and rapists and his reportedly categorizing all Haitians as having AIDS.
“I have nothing against people from Norway, but what makes them preferable to our brothers and sisters from Haiti and Africa?” she said, responding to reports that Trump said he preferred immigrants from the northern European nation over those from Third World countries.
“The truth is,” Foushee said, “America is more divided now than in the pre-Civil Rights Era. … We forgot for a moment that the fight for equality and peace isn’t over yet.”
Foushee also mentioned the special U.S. Senate race in Alabama between Democrat Doug Jones, the narrow victor, and Republican Roy Moore, who was facing allegations of sexual misbehavior with teenagers when he was in his 30s
“Hatred and bigotry were hidden behind patriotism and Christianity” during the race, Foushee said. “It makes me wonder if you even know who Jesus is,” she continued to thunderous applause. “Anyone who says he loves God and hates his brother does not love God.”
The celebration started with a rally at the Peace and Justice Plaza at the corner of Franklin and Henderson streets downtown. About 200 braved the 20-degree cold to hear from members of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro and UNC-CH chapters of the NAACP.
Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP President Anna Richards led the crowd in singing “Happy Birthday” to King.
The morning’s featured speaker community organizer and HIV/AIDS activist Quinton Harper, listed a host of hurdles and insults – from violence to Confederate flags – that black people have faced and asked whether they were from Reconstruction, the Civil Rights Era of the mid-1900s or the present day. The answer in all cases was all three.
Harper urged those gathered to fight for universal health care and a higher minimum wage. Closer to home, he noted rising rents in Carrboro. “Black and brown bodies are being priced out of Carrboro,” he said.
After Harper’s speech, the crowd marched down Franklin Street before filling the First Baptist Church sanctuary.
The service included hymns by the UNC-CH Gospel Choir and the Community Church Choir.
Foushee also took aim more locally in her speech, targeting the “Silent Sam” Confederate memorial on the UNC campus and the Republican supermajority in the North Carolina legislature, which has moved to limit the power of the executive branch and to take over the duty of appointing judges in the judicial branch. “We are seeing our democracy come under attack,” she said.
But she saw hope in the 374 women who have declared their candidacies for the U.S. House of Representatives and the 42 who have declared for the Senate, saying King would be delighted: “Women are helping shape our nation and realize Dr. King’s dream.”
In addition to Foushee, a number of elected representatives attended the march, the service or both, including Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger; all the Chapel Hill Town Council members; Chapel Hill-Carrboro School Board members Joal Broun, Rani Dasi and Margaret Samuels; Carrboro Aldermen Barbara Foushee, Sammy Slade and Damon Seils and Orange County Commissioners Mark Marcoplos and Penny Rich.
Participants were diverse racially and in age. Joy Mermin of Chapel Hill said she had been politically active for years. “It’s really important,” she said “maybe this year more than ever to stand against the continuing forces of racism in our society, and to do it in a community of many faiths, many colors. I’ve been marching for more than 50 years, and Dr. King’s message is as important as ever.”
Tia Wall, a junior at UNC, said it was her first time celebrating MLK Day but a class last semester spurred to come out this year. She added that she was considering joining the NAACP.
Matt Goad: firstname.lastname@example.org