Annual MLK Day Unity March and Rally sheds light and brings hope to Durham

Lewis Walker, posed with a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. Between 1956 and 1960, King visited Durham several times, speaking at Hillside High School, the then North Carolina College (now N.C. Central University) and Duke University. (Staff photo by Landon Bost)

Monday morning, Jan. 20, about 250 marchers gathered in front of the NC Mutual Life building for Durham’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Unity March and Rally. The group gathered for a short opening, then marched to First Presbyterian Church on East Main Street where speakers addressed the crowd from the pulpit.

Durham Mayor Steve Schewel speaking at the rally held at First Presbyterian Church. Schewel, along with several other local government officials, apologized for their failure in the maintenance of the McDougald Terrace apartments and reaffirmed their commitment to affordable, safe housing in Durham. (Staff photo by Landon Bost)

Every year, this event provides an opportunity for local activists, city leaders and concerned citizens to come together and reflect on the challenges facing the community, as well as the progress being made.

“I’ve been coming for more than 30 years, since my kids were young, because this is a great place for Durham to come together, not only to celebrate the legacy of Dr. King but to look forward toward what we need to do as a community to improve our community,” Durham Mayor Steve Schewel said.

To newcomers, this year’s march seemed to have an electric buzz, as the December deaths at McDougald Terrace amplified the existing outrage over living conditions in units maintained by the Durham Housing Authority. Over 300 residents were evacuated to hotels in early January due to carbon monoxide levels, roach infestations, lead paint, gas leaks and hazardous conditions.

To many seasoned veterans, however, this year’s march felt very familiar.

In his opening remarks, Carl Webb, one such veteran and urban developer, reflected on the challenges Durham has overcome in the past, particularly the 1957 Royal Ice Cream sit-in where a group of African Americans requested to be served and were arrested for trespassing.

“Every year, I wonder, ‘Another march, is that enough?’” Webb said to the crowd.

Even as Schewel faced intense criticism throughout the day for his administration’s handling of the public housing crisis, he noted how this year’s march felt similar to marches from years past.

“It almost seems like almost every year there’s an issue of critical importance to deal with,” Schewel said.

Around 250 supporters gathered in the parking lot of the NC Mutual Life building for the 2020 Martin Luther King. Jr Unity March and Rally organized by the Durham Community MLK Steering Committee. “To recognize this day in America is important,” Sean Hall, president of the Beta Theta Lambda chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha said. “Not because he was a member of our frat, but because he was a great man fighting for the rights of all in America. He chose community over chaos.” (Staff photo by Landon Bost)

As marchers followed the same well-worn path through the city, there was no feeling that this year’s march mattered less.

“There is no year this march means more than it means this year,” Schewel said in his opening remarks.

Schewel started the day by apologizing to residents of McDougald Terrace. He promised to make the situation right in the short term and to focus on expanding affordable housing in the long term.

While some in the crowd appreciated Schewel’s attempt to take responsibility for the situation, some of the McDougald Terrace residents felt it was too little too late.

Ashley Canady, McDougald Terrace resident council president, was one of them.

“It’s really hurtful because I’ve been calling out for help for the last 10 years for my community,” Canady said. “It shouldn’t take children dying or children being transferred to the hospital for cardiac arrest for Durham to wake up. Durham should have been woke a long time ago.”

Marchers raise their fists and signs in protest as they walk down West Chapel Hill Street with the NC Mutual Life building in the background. (Staff photo by Landon Bost)

Canady’s frustration is not unique. Throughout the day, marchers consistently kept the focus on actions rather than words.

“Today we march, but what about tomorrow?” said state Rep. Zack Hawkins, D-District 31. “We must act.”

While public housing took much of the focus in this year’s march, these concerns are part of the broader struggle to improve support systems for vulnerable citizens and break down the cycles of poverty in Durham.

A close-up photo of a man’s medallion commemorating Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech. (Staff photo by Landon Bost)

The Rev. Dr. Warren L. Herndon, founder of Social Justice Ministries, said there is a disconnect between the local government and residents.

“We’re living in a very divisive society, a divisive community,” he said. “Locally, government is not supporting people the way they should, and the resources in this country [are] not being shared with the individuals that live in the margin.”

As speakers and marchers drew attention to the many challenges facing the community, they also spread messages of hope. Quoting Dr. King, one marcher carried a sign that read, “We must accept the finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”

As the day progressed, it became all the more clear that Durham’s “infinite hope” lies with its people. Durham faces many challenges, but also boasts many superheroes. Many of those marching shared stories of how they were working to improve the community at the local level. 

Community members march down West Chapel Hill Street during the 2020 MLK Jr. Unity March. (Staff photo by Landon Bost)

Frederick Farrington, founder of the nonprofit organization Bridging the Generational Gap for Hope, said he came to “represent the justice system” and equal rights for ex-felons.

“Well, it’s equal opportunity; it’s equality,” Farrington said. You know, MLK always pushed for equality and human rights, and I think a lot of times ex-felons don’t have a fair shot. You know, they’re looked at as, ‘Okay, you’re criminal. You’re going to continue to be a criminal, and we’ll put you on probation even after coming out of prison to monitor you, and some of those systems are designed for people to fail.”

No matter what the issue is, there’s somebody trying to help. Several speakers recognized these bright spots in the community and shared hope that together they can make meaningful progress toward a brighter future.

Wendy Jacobs, the chair of the Durham Board of County Commissioners, said there is a lot to be done, but Durham knows how to do it.

During the march, demonstrators sang Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” to honor what would have been Martin Luther King Jr.’s 91st birthday. (Staff photo by Landon Bost)

“It’s going to take every single person in this room, our city and government, our schools, our community, our nonprofits, our churches,” Jacobs said. “We are Durham. We can make it happen. We know the pathway up to the mountaintop.”

Herndon echoed her faith in the community, but said how important it is to get all of these people aligned around common goals by having community meetings about three times a year.

“This is MLK [day],” Herndon said. “Everybody is cooperating and marching and singing and shaking hands and saying the same things, but on tomorrow morning the politicians are going to go back to their side of the community. The clergy are going to go back to their side of the community. The school board are going to go back to their own issues; so we’ve got to come together more than just once or twice a year.”

Whatever happens in the future, community activist Canady reminded marchers that McDougald Terrace needs help now.

“So as we march today, I just want you guys to remember Dr. King but also hold our community up in arms,” she said. “Pray for the community and not just today. Go start showing our community love everywhere; let’s not just go out and show love today. We’re going to need you guys tomorrow. We’re going to need you guys next week. We’re going to need you guys for months.”

Canady won’t easily forget the promises of support she heard from speakers throughout the day.

“I just really hope that everybody sticks to their word and actually continues to stand with our community,” she said. “Not just speak[ing] it because you’re in front of people, but put some action behind those words.”

*For more information about how to help those impacted by Durham’s Public Housing Crisis, visit*

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The Durham Children’s Choir, led by artistic director Dena Byers, performing during an intermission at the First Presbyterian Church rally on Monday, Jan. 20, 2020. The choir performed “Every time I Feel The Spirit,” “Jordan’s Angels,” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” (Staff photo by Landon Bost)


During a performance of the Black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice And Sing,” demonstrators at First Presbyterian Church were asked to stand up and hold hands to represent a metaphor for closing the gaps in Durham’s communities. (Staff photo by Landon Bost)
India Dennis and her son, Sacha, sitting closely together while listening to speakers at the First Presbyterian Church rally. (Staff photo by Landon Bost)
Posing for a group photo following the rally, Durham community leaders include: (left to right) Durham Mayor Steve Schewel, County Chair of Commissioners Wendy Jacobs, The Rev. Warren L. Herndon, City Council Member-at-Large Charlie Reece, McDougal Terrace community organizer Ashley Canady, Congressman David Price, Durham Children’s Choir director Dena Byers; Tracy Lovett, North Carolina director of outreach for David Price; and Dan Hudgins, chair of the Durham Housing Authority, (Staff photo by Landon Bost