Citizens of Chapel Hill braved the cold weather and gathered together on Monday to fight for racial justice in their community in celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The events demonstrate that King’s legacy remains an inspiration for activists old and young.
Franklin Street March
The Chapel Hill-Carrboro and UNC-Chapel Hill chapters of the NAACP hosted the annual MLK Day Rally, March and Worship in downtown Chapel Hill on Monday morning. The event advocated for racial equality and an end to the lingering effects of America’s troubled racial history.
Marchers met at the Peace and Justice Plaza in front of the post office on Franklin Street and listened to several students, community members and local politicians speak about the importance of the day and the racial injustice present today. Participants then completed a police-escorted march from the plaza to the First Baptist Church on North Roberson Street, where they were welcomed into the church for “coffee and conversation.”
The crowd walked briskly through the cold morning, singing protest songs and chanting phrases such as, “Show me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!” At the end of the route, guests were treated to cocoa and chai provided free of charge by Vimala’s Curryblossom Café, with owner Vimala Rajendran passing out cup after steaming cup herself.
Quinton Harper, a UNC graduate and current field director at Democracy North Carolina, was a highlighted speaker at the event and gave a speech before the march began.
“The greatness of America is yet to be seen,” Harper said
Mayor Pam Hemminger also participated in the event, as did several other elected officials in local government.
Included was Allen Buansi, a member of the Chapel Hill Town Council and an attorney-fellow at the UNC Center for Civil Rights.
Buansi mentioned that, for him, MLK day helps him reflect on how he has worked to continue King’s cause.
“It is a day to reflect on what I’ve done during the past year, and (a day) to advance the cause of freedom,” he said.
King once said that life’s most “persistent and urgent question” is what one has done for others, and Buansi said he answers the question by working with the young people in his community.
“It’s really important for me to bring along young people and have them serve through public office, through an advisory board, through action,” Buansi said.
Revival of the Silent Sam Sit-in
One racial issue adopted by many young people in the community has been that of the removal of Silent Sam, the Confederate memorial standing in the center of McCorkle Place.
Protesters revived their sit-in at the statue on Monday afternoon, bringing out signs from previous sit-ins and gathering a small group of protesters around the monument.
“We think it’s important to celebrate Martin Luther King day by doing something that will promote racial justice in our own community,” said Lindsay Ayling, an organizer of the event. “It’s a little bit frustrating that the University … they’ll put together events celebrating the life of Dr. King, but they ignore this issue of racism that’s right at the heart of our community.”
Ayling made a point to connect the case for Silent Sam’s removal with MLK’s legacy. She was distributing copies of a passage from King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, written during his period of arrest in 1963. In the passage, King explains how the greatest obstacle in his activism has not been the Ku Klux Klan or other extremists, but rather “white moderates," who are “more devoted to ‘order’ than justice.”
“I think that the UNC administration’s attitude is very similar to the white moderate that Dr. King describes,” Ayling said.
At least two protesters at the Silent Sam sit-in planned to stay at the memorial overnight, and although Ayling was not one of them, she hopes that the revival of the Silent Sam protest this afternoon will remind the University administration that protesters haven’t given up their cause.
“We want people to know that we’re still here," Ayling said. “We don’t want people to go about their day and feel comfortable in the presence of this statue, especially on Martin Luther King day.”
Although racial tension and inequality persists in America, the members of the Chapel Hill community present at these events today seem determined and energized to work for change.
“I am concerned,” said rally speaker Quinton Harper. “But I have hope, and I have a dream, and I have a voice.”
Other MLK-themed events happening in Chapel Hill this week can be found here:
Tuesday, Jan. 16
6 p.m. to 8 p.m.
“He Was a Poem, He Was a Song” program
Wednesday, Jan. 17
Candlelight Vigil – Warriors of Freedom
Stone Center Amphitheater
Thursday, Jan. 18
MLK Celebration Keynote Lecture & Awards Ceremony