“Feels like family,” 2019 MLK Unity March and Rally brings community together

(From left to right) Pastor William Lucas, pastor James M. Lawson, Rev. Breana van Velzen and pastor Spencer Bradford lead the march through downtown Durham during the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Unity March. (Staff photo by Adrianne Cleven)

The cold did not keep marchers from participating in the Unity March and Rally, an annual event on Martin Luther King Jr. Day planned by the Durham Community Martin Luther King, Jr. Steering Committee.

Marchers brave the cold on their way to the First Presbyterian Church. (Staff photo by Will Shropshire)

With scarves wrapped around their faces and gloved hands holding onto homemade signs, the attendees gathered in the lobby of the Tower at Mutual Plaza and celebrated its history. It once held the largest African-American owned company in the world, North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance, and now serves as the witness to both the celebration of King’s life and the continuing fight for equality and justice.

Sheriff Clarence Birkhead, Durham County’s first African-American sheriff, said that he believes Dr. King’s philosophy can unite the community.

“As we trace his footsteps,” Birkhead said. “We should remember the words that he told to our parents and our grandparents. The message of love, and unity and how we can all work together to make a better Durham, a safer Durham, a Durham for everyone.”

Police Chief CJ Davis speaks with members of the community before the march. (Staff photo by Will Shropshire)

Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis, who made history in 2016 when she became Durham’s first female, African-American chief of police, echoed Birkhead’s sentiments.

“Dr. King’s strategy to address and correct an unjust nation was clearly through a philosophy of non-violence,” Davis said. “We continue on this same quest to eradicate divisions that fuel a world riddled with violence.”

Davis said she worked alongside the King family in Atlanta, where she planned events for the King family and served in the security detail for Coretta Scott King when she passed.

The March

Children with jackets zipped to their chins and smiles under their hoods and hats, led the march from the tower to the First Presbyterian Church.

Marching students (left to right) Quinton Pettiford, Haneef Braimah, Tariq Braimah and Jordan Parker hold a banner representing First Calvary Baptist Church and the annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Youth Lock-In. Fellow demonstrator James Lawson said, “This holiday has been set aside to recognize [Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.] for all that he contributed for the betterment of mankind, so that justice can continue to roll down the hills and righteousness can flow like a mighty stream. That’s why I’m here.” (Staff photo by Adrianne Cleven)

Residents reminisced about the changes Durham has experienced throughout the years in the wake of King’s legacy.

“I grew up in that era when the march was real, and that’s why it’s still real to me,” said Joan Holeman, a long-time resident of Durham. “It opened up so many doors and avenues for me”

Holeman said she grew up in a segregated Durham, but gained the opportunity to work as one of the only African American women in the administrative departments at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“I was so happy to get that kind of job in that kind of setting because all they were hiring for were to clean bathrooms, to clean blackboards,” Holeman said. “I was treated nice, but differently.”

Renditions of “Happy Birthday” rang through the crowd as they celebrated the memory of Dr. King and made their way to the church. Upon arrival, the Durham Children’s Choir greeted the visitors with a performance of “Lift Every Voice and Sing”.

Dr. Warren Herndon, founder and president of Social Justice Ministries and an organizer of the Martin Luther King Jr. Unity March, holds a megaphone before the start of the parade through downtown Durham, N.C. Monday, Jan. 21. Herndon said, “The importance of Monday, January 21, 2019 is that, in order for us to realize the dream of love, respect and solidarity in the 21st century, we must study Dr. King’s dream of the ‘60s and become transformed in our thinking.” (Staff photo by Adrianne Cleven)

“Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,

Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us,

Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,

Let us march on, till victory is won.”

The Rally

For Pastor Katie Crowe of Trinity Avenue Presbyterian Church, the event extended beyond remembering Dr. King to fueling the continuing work being done in Durham.

“What we say and pray here today, gives voice and vision that will guide us in the work we do as we leave this place,” Crowe said from the pulpit.

A baton-passing ceremony reinforced this message, where prayers were offered by leaders of multiple faiths.

From left to right, Reverend Joe Harvard, Bishop Elroy Lewis, and Rabi John Friedman – also known as “the God squad” – pose for photos before the march. The trio are prominent clergymen and civil rights leaders in the Durham community. (Staff photo by Will Shropshire)

Rabbi John Friedman, Bishop Elroy Lewis, Reverends Melvin Williams and Kevin Langley were called to the front of the church to give their batons to emerging religious leaders in the community.

Corey O’Neal, a native of Durham and one of the recipients of a baton, said the event honored Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy of “freedom and cohesiveness.”

O’Neal’s wife, Dominique, said the event held a great sense of community.

“This is my first time coming,” she said just before the service started. “It feels like family.”

For Ima Abdul Waheed, who offered a prayer from the Quran, the interfaith approach was important to celebrate King’s legacy and the work people are doing in Durham.

“We have got to make sure that the Confederate monuments that stand outside the courthouses of this state come down,” Durham Mayor Steve Schewel said to the congregation at First Presbyterian Church. (Staff photo by Will Shropshire)

“People of faith have always played a role in the establishment of society,” Waheed said, “The human community is like the human body. If one part of the body aches, the whole body will feel the pain.”

At the closing of the service, the religious leaders called the children to the front of the church, asking parents in the congregation to rest their hands on their child’s forehead.

In the center of the group, Rabbi Friedman offered a prayer in Hebrew, which was followed by a Christian prayer. The prayer reinforced a statement made earlier in the service that “the things that matter are these youth.”

When the service ended, children followed their parents, their red and black coordinated outfits flooding the walkways of the church. The honorees thanked and conversed with other leaders who had spoken. The church filled with a sense of joy, each of the attendees once again ready to continue the fight.

Parents and guardians lay hands on children during a Martin Luther King Jr. celebration at First Presbyterian Church in Durham, N.C. Monday, Jan. 21. Several speakers during the service celebrated youth and their contributions to social justice, and young members of the Durham Children’s Choir sang during the service.(Staff photo by Adrianne Cleven)

(With additional reporting by Natasha Townsend)