An MLK Day to remember

The Martin Luther King Jr. Day rally, march, and assembly at First Baptist Church, sponsored by the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP, has become quite a tradition. While the message is always celebratory and challenging, the size of the crowd and the themes of the event have varied with the times.

This year, the messages were charged with all the tensions and emotions of the current national conversation on race and power and the mattering of black lives. With those issues laid against continuing concerns about policies and decisions coming out of Raleigh that threaten to undo decades of progressive work and to pull the safety net out from under thousands of our citizens, it was a day to remember.

It’s interesting to look at how these conversations have evolved over the past 10 years.

In January 2005, the Town Council had finally voted to change the name of Airport Road to honor Dr. King. It was during that process that many of us–some of whom had lived here a long time–first learned that Dr. King had spoken in Chapel Hill. Dan Pollitt remembered; Joe Straley remembered. But the fact it could be almost forgotten caused some of us to consider the fragility of historical memory.

That year’s speaker at First Baptist was the Rev. Dr. William Barber II (not yet the head of the state NAACP). Here is how I remembered his remarks:

Anyone with remaining doubts on the relevance of the symbolism of naming a road for Dr. King, rather than a monument or a building, should have heard this testimonial. For his text he took Isaiah 40, especially this verse:

“The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

He called it a highway “to walk out the discomfort of a people that had long been denied. Tiredness brings a new kind of strength, a kind that makes you want to get out in the road and say you aren’t going to take it any more.” In one context after another–school equity, economic justice, national politics, international relations–he urged us to “get on the right road,” the roads that Dr. King had traveled on but left unfinished. Claiming the prophetic tradition of Dr. King himself, Dr. Barber challenged us all to keep on trying.

In 2007, the focus was was on education. At the rally, Ashley Osment warned about roll-backs from the promise of Brown v. Board of Education. In his assembly keynote, Dr. Curtis Gatewood, second vice-president of the North Carolina NAACP, urged his audience to make their voices known at the upcoming HKonJ march on Raleigh. “Our children are being lynched academically,” he said. By January 2007, the space in front of the old Post Office had been named Peace and Justice Plaza.

In 2009, the topic returned to local events as the Rev. Robert Campbell of the Rogers Road community spoke at the rally and the Rev. Troy Harrison, pastor of St. Joseph’s CME Church, spoke at the assembly. That occasion had the feel of a celebration, coming just months after the election of President Barack Obama. (Rev. Manley, as I recall, was practically beside himself.)

In 2011, the theme borrowed from that of HKonJ: “Forward together, not one step back.” The context of Ben Chavis’s keynote address (video) was the 2010 mid-term elections. “If Dr. King were alive today,” he said, “he would tell President Obama, “‘We cannot afford to allow our society, no matter how much reaction, no matter how much backlash, we cannot afford to allow America to go backwards.'”

By 2013, the Moral Monday campaign led by Rev. Barber and the NAACP had become the context for the MLK Day rally and assembly. Legislative roll-backs in voting rights, health care, education, aid to the poor, and more had become rallying cries for change. Newly elected county commissioner and civil rights attorney Mark Dorosin delivered the keynote, and Minister Michelle Laws “gave one of the most passionate speeches of the day and received a standing ovation for her call to action.”

This year—fittingly against a context of a renewed urgency in reviving the strategies of the Civil Rights Movement—the theme was “Preparing Our Youth to Face Tomorrow’s Challenges.” Speaking at the rally was UNC freshman Madrid Danner-Smith, who introduced a theme that would carry through into the keynote at the church by Rev. Rodney Coleman, pastor of First Baptist: the insidious, covert nature of modern racism.

Most memorable for me was “the occasion” given again by Michelle Laws. In a voice that is becoming more passionate, more powerful and compelling by the year, she called down the spirits of those who have come before us: Joe and Lucy Straley, Daniel Pollitt, Yonni Chapman, Bill Thorpe, Ashley Osment, and others. It is hard to believe they are gone. We miss their strong voices, and in their names we must continue.

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