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Monday, January 17, 2005

MLK Day in Chapel Hill

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP's 28th annual rally, march, and church service in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. got off to a brisk start at 9:30 this morning. (It was a bad time to have lost my gloves.) I was honored to be one of the speakers at the Old Post Office. This is what I said:

About a year ago, you set out on a journey, and I joined you. It was a rough road, a bumpy road, with a couple of switchbacks along the way. The road was called Martin Luther King Boulevard. May 8 will be a great day in Chapel Hill.

But here we are in January, celebrating the birthday of Dr. King. Janus was the god of beginnings, of fresh starts. He was also the god of passageways, of comings and goings. When you see pictures of him, he has two heads, one looking forward and one looking backward.

In this past year, you have asked us to look backward and forward.

You've asked us to take a hard look backward at our own history. You've reminded us that Dr. King visited Chapel Hill in May 1960, and that's something that we needed to remember. It was a very important time for the movement in Chapel Hill, and we can't let it be forgotten.

You've also asked us to look forward. Later when we get to the church, Rev. Barber is going to remind us that "the work has just begun." When we look to the future to end homelessness in Orange County, we are doing the work of Dr. King. When we work to get bargaining power for public employees in North Carolina, we are doing the work of Dr. King.

But when we talk about the longer span of history, I’m here to tell you that Dr. King's place is not secure. We do not know how he will be remembered in 50, 100, 200 years. Will he be remembered as a great American, the winner of the Nobel prize for peace, a gift to the world? Or will he be thought of as a provincial southern activist?

History is always in flux.

Professor Jacqueline Hall gave a talk the other night on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Southern Historical Collection at UNC. She talked about the archives, about how the words on those old pieces of paper stay the same, it's just the interpretation that changes. And not all of the pieces of paper are even read. Some documents aren't even there. Some things never get written down; they have to be kept "in lively memory," as Frederick Douglass would say.

You've asked us to be part of a great memorial to Dr. King, the tapestry of roads in his honor. There are over 700 in this country now and some overseas. On May 8, there will be one more.

And by insisting that it not just be any street, but that it be a major street, in the white part of Chapel Hill, you have cast your vote in favor of the great historical Martin Luther King, the great American, the beacon of peace (audacious word!), our gift to the world.

I'm grateful you've taken me with you this far on your journey. I'm with you today. I'll be with you on May 8, and the day after.


Others spoke more eloquently about Dr. King's message and its crucial importance today. But none of us could come close to the power of the message delivered at the First Baptist Church by the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II of Goldsboro. 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 prohpetic tradition of Dr. King himself, Dr. Barber challenged us all to keep on trying.

Orange County Commissioner Valerie Foushee received the NAACP Community Service Award. Eva Caldwell received the Rebecca Clark Award. Al McSurely received a special award for his long career of service and particularly in Chatham County--he was called "a brother wrapped in white skin." Congratulations to all.

UPDATE: Renaming of road lauded as symbol

UPDATE 2: Resources for Black History Month