Melvin Whitley keeps up the fight in East Durham

By Purity Kimaiyo
NCCU Staff Writer
the Durham VOICE

The Rev. Melvin Whitley, may be best known as the guy behind “operation pipe dream,” but the political activist and community organizer in East Durham has fought and won many battles. The awards plastered on his office wall are a true testimony of a man who has accomplished a lot.

Melvin Whitley gives a sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church. (Photo courtesy of Melvin Whitley)

Whitley is a Raleigh native who graduated from J.W Ligon High School. He attended Shaw University to study theology. At 19, he joined the United States Marine Corps and served in Vietnam before receiving an honorable discharge in 1969.

NCCU student and Durham VOICE reporter recently interviewed Whitley for a Q&A.

Q: When did your passion for NECD as community activist start?

Whitley: It all began with a vision seven years ago. NECD was best known for drugs, gang violence and prostitution. It had the highest crime rates in the city because of unemployment and illiteracy rates. I was perturbed by this and I vowed to myself to make a difference in my community. I started with A New East Durham initiative to draw political attention to the community.

Q: How has NECD changed since the introduction of A New East Durham?

Whitley: A lot has changed since then. What used to be an unsafe community during daylight is now a safe place. Myself and a couple of the community members started as community watchers. We would assemble ourselves on all corners from Drivers Street to Alston Avenue looking out for anyone engaging in any illegal activity. We would catch them and take them to the police. We moved wherever these culprits moved. The police department was reluctant at first to aid us in community patrols but after reaching the Sheriff department who cooperated with our plan, the police gave up and joined us. We now have the police patrolling the community day and night.

Q: What made you become a part of the Holton advisory group?

Whitley: I got a call from the police department, informing me that they had arrested eight children who had broken into Holton Middle School now known as the Holton Career and Resource Center. They had not vandalized any material in the school. They simply wanted to play basketball in the school’s court. I later went to court and the judge dismissed all the charges. How can you see a child and not see God? The children had a vision long before the community did. We had the idea to revitalize the community, but we did not have a clue of where to begin. That is how the Holton Resource and Career Center came about, thanks to the city of Durham, Durham Public Schools, Durham county and Duke University Health System who partnered together to ensure the $17.9 million recreation center was built.

Q: So what are some of the initiatives you have undertaken in NECD?

Whitley: Well, besides “operation pipe dream” where I delivered letters to 31 Durham convenient stores that allegedly sold the love roses (crack pipes), I also worked to ensure that all strip clubs in Durham were closed. I have agitated for the bullet ownership bill and thanks to the recent state and federal legislation the computerized national instant check system (NCIS) that bars gun sales not only to felons, substance abusers, illegal actions and domestic violence offenders, but also any anyone whose mental state has been proven to be dangerous to themselves or others. I Am currently advocating for independent run-energy efficiency program NC SAVE $ to defeat Duke Energy’s controversial energy efficiency proposal, Save-a-Watt.

Q: Why not run for a political seat?

Whitley: Having worked for 42 political campaigns and winning 36, as much as I love the idea of victory, neighborhood organization is my passion. I went back to school at NC State to study urban planning, “Each one, teach one” —  I believe in teaching the community for them to improve their standard of living. My father once told me, “Empower the people and more power to you.” There are more good people in any given community than there are bad ones. You don’t have to move to a different community, you can make a difference where you are.

Q: What do you do when you are not changing the community?

Whitley: I love spending time with my wife Claudette and my three children; Tene, Jermaine and Emanuel Whitley. I like reading, my favorite book “The Greatest Miracle in the World,” plus I enjoy playing chess.

Q: How does religion affect your leadership?

Whitley: I put God first in everything I do.  Seventeen years ago I was homeless, ate from garbage cans, I had lost direction after serving in the Vietnam War and my wife dying from cancer. I asked God to fix me and in return I would serve him. My life is a record of how God can use people. I would never accomplish anything if I didn’t have the support of the community, friends and family. I owe all my success to them. NECD is a work in progress. We have come a long way and we are destined for greater heights.

Rev. Melvin Whitley is the Outreach Minister at Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church, former political director for the Durham NAACP, President of Y.E. Smith Neighborhood Association, member of the Durham Crime Cabinet, Congregation Outreach Chair for Democracy North Carolina, a Chairman of Durham ACORN, Clean Energy Durham Board, member of Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, Outreach Chairman for Men in Recovery (Homeless Veterans), Co-Chair Partner Against Crime District One, a member The Durham Religious Coalition, a member of Durham Capital Improvement Advisory Council, a member of the Northeast Central Durham Leadership Council, a member Holton Center Advisory Group, and a member of the Area Board of Mental Health.

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