Pierce Freelon’s
Martin Luther King Day address
to Durham

We are very grateful to Pierce Freelon for sharing his Martin Luther King Day address with us.

photo by Chrystal Kelly

photo by Chrystal Kelly

Speak your Truth

by: Pierce Freelon

Below is the original text Pierce Freelon shared with us.

I want to open up the space with some words from a very distinguished African American humanitarian and philosopher. If you know these words, feel free to speak them with me.

Happy Birthday to ya

Happy Birthday to ya

Happy Birthday

Happy Birthday to ya

Happy Birthday to ya

Happy Birthday

For those of you in the room, who never been to a Black cookout, fish fry or family reunion: that was the Black birthday song. If you’re not immersed in our culture, you might not even know that we had our own version to the Birthday song. We actually have Black versions of everything. 

A few moments ago, the Durham City-County Employee Choir blessed us with a beautiful rendition of the Black National Anthem, Lift Every Voice and Sing, written by James Weldon Johnson. 

We also have our very own, and very short, month. Black History Month was founded by Carter G Woodson. It’s next month. If you were wondering when rich, white, heterosexual men’s month is, that would be: March, April, May, June, July, Aug, Step, Oct, Nov, Dec and Jan. 

So yes: does anybody know the creator of the Black birthday song? 

Stevie Wonder. 

“Birthday” was a single from Stevie Wonder’s 1981 album Hotter Than July. “Birthday” was a rallying call — an anthem demanding that Congress recognize Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a federal holiday. Let’s check out some of the lyrics: 

Verse 1:

“I just never understood

How a man who died for good

Could not have a day that would

Be set aside for his recognition

Verse 2:

You know it doesn’t make much sense

There ought to be a law against

Anyone who takes offense

At a day in your celebration”

It’s hard to imagine TODAY, but some people took offense at the idea that we would honor someone like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with a national holiday. They thought he was unworthy of such recognition, unqualified to join the likes of people like George Washington and Christopher Columbus, to have their own paid holiday. 

Two years after Stevie Wonder’s anthem hit the airwaves, President Ronald Reagan reluctantly signed a bill to create a federal holiday in King’s honor in November of 1983. I was born one month later, right here in Durham, in December of 1983. So I’ve never known life without a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I’ve always admired and loved King — not just because we’re both Capricorns — but because of what he stood for. And I grew up assuming everyone considered him a hero, a humanitarian and a patriot, just like I did. 

Pierce Freelon MLK 2018, photo by Chrystal Kelly

Pierce Freelon MLK 2018, photo by Chrystal Kelly

It wasn’t until later in life, that I learned King was a controversial figure; that people had to struggle for his birthday to be recognized as a national holiday; that President Reagan was initially against the idea; that organizers rallied over 6 million signatures to petition Congress — it was the largest petition in favor of an issue in US History. I didn’t realize that Stevie Wonder was actually putting his career on the line to make a political statement in support of King.

Artists have always been at the vanguard of social justice movements. We are often burdened with the responsibility of stating the obvious: whether it’s Billie Holiday’s indictment of black bodies swinging from trees like Strange Fruit, Nina Simone’s very blunt: Mississippi Goddam or Sweet Honey in the Rock, whose music provided a soundtrack to the Civil Rights Movement. We have a rich legacy of artist-activists and cultural alchemists who have shaped change through their art — Stevie Wonder is a part of this legacy. 

What was perplexing to me was that there was a time in this country when people needed to be convinced that King was deserving of a holiday. There was a whooooole lotta pushback from folks who felt King was a traitor, a communist, a troublemaker, a rabble-rouser, and a criminal. 

Some of the biggest opposition was right here in the state of North Carolina, where the late Senator Jesse Helms, condemned King for his “radical political views”. 

Helms said, “a federal holiday should be an occasion for “shared values,” but King’s “very name itself remains a source of tension. He is a deeply troubling symbol of a divided society,” 

One of the most powerful Republican Senators of his time accused King of using “nonviolence as a provocative act to disturb the peace of the state and to trigger, in many cases, overreaction by authorities.”

This is a dangerous example of victim blaming, where the people who are being oppressed are blamed for instigating state violence that is inflicted upon them. Helms was a master manipulator — a forefather of today’s resurgent white nationalist movement — and it’s important to remember how threatened he was by King’s so-called “radical political views.”

I’m here today to celebrate those views… here are some quotes from MLK’s I have a Dream Speech.. 

“Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice”

“I have a Dream that one day right there in Alabama little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and little white girls as sisters and brothers.”

What’s so radical about that?

Well, let’s look at Jesse Helms. In a political ad against his liberal opponent Frank Porter Graham, Helms warned white people to “wake up before it’s too late! Do you want Negroes working beside you, your wife and daughters in your mills and factories? Frank Graham favors mingling of the races.” 

To Helms, integration was dangerous, something to be feared. And he used the media, and strategic bigotry to fan the flames of white nationalism. 

Let’s look at some more of King’s radical views: 

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed – we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

—now that sure sounds like Black Lives Matter to me. 

King also warned, “The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”

—Now we’re getting radical. He’s warning of rebellion here, an uprising if we don’t see justice. And he wasn’t just talking about Jim Crow. Especially closer to his death, King became increasingly Anti-War, as he moved from Civil Rights to one of the root causes of oppression: POVERTY.

King understood that Poverty is a Policy choice, and to attack poverty, is to attack the status quo, and its underlying structural architecture of White Supremacy, patriarchy and capitalism. That scared the living crap out of people like Jesse Helms. 

Following King’s “I Have a Dream” Speech the FBI circulated a memo, and I quote

“In the light of King’s powerful demagogic speech yesterday he stands heads and shoulders over all other Negro leaders put together when it comes to influencing great masses of Negros. We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation from the standpoint of national security.”

This speech made King a national security threat. Public enemy number one. And he was the exact age I am now — only 34 years old. If the “I Have a Dream” speech was given today, King would have been what we call a “millennial” — and this fact is important. 

Let’s talk about millennials for a second. Durham has grown fast in recent years, and our demographics are shifting to the point where median age in Durham is now 32 years old. This is an interesting age.. young, rabble-rousing and radical 20-and-30 somethings have always been more willing believe that another world is possible. 

There’s a west-African philosophy called Sankofa, that says you need to look back, in order to move forward. 

When I look back, I see my wife’s Grandfather Samuel DeWitt Proctor. He was President of A&T (they called it A&T College of North Carolina at the time) when four students decided to sit down at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, launching a national sit-in movement. A section of that historic lunch counter is one of the exhibits at the Civil Rights Museum about an hour up the road from here. My father had the privilege of designing that museum. Those four kids were 18/19 years old, and they did something reckless. They broke the law, and risked their lives, to demand equal rights. 

Over in Raleigh, Ella Baker led SNCC, the student nonviolent coordinating committee. These were college students – kids with a vision to change the world. 

Here in Durham, Douglass E Moore — a 29-year-old minister led the Royal Ice Cream sit-in, which would plant the seeds for the Greensboro Four. 

I say this all to say: young, Black, North Carolinians were the lifeblood of this national movement. 

In our current moment of Black Lives Matter, and #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, new human rights icons such as Colin Kaepernick and Tarana Burke are emerging. Cultural activists, such as Hip Hop artists Rapsody, Kendrick Lamar and J Cole are speaking out through their music. As President Trump virulently lashes out at black people, and women, and the trans-community.. and now I hear Jeff Sessions is coming for weed-smokers — here we are again having a national conversation about race, patriarchy, social justice, and human rights. 

And just like during King’s time — North Carolina is still at the center of it. From the uprisings in Charlotte to the Confederate monument that was torn down by the people of Durham.

I don’t know how many of y’all heard President Winfrey speak at the Golden Globes this week, but she said to SPEAK YOUR TRUTH. Can I speak my truth today? 

It was a reckless, rabble-rousing, trouble-making millennial with “radical political views”  that climbed a ladder and tied a noose around the Boys Who Wore Grey. Takiyah Thompson is a black, queer North Carolina Central University Eagle. She stands on the shoulders of Harriet Tubman, who broke the law, and destroyed property, for our freedom. She stands on the shoulders of Durham’s own Pauli Murray who was arrested for sitting in the white section of a Virginia bus, and who coined the term “Jane Crow” prophetically alluding to the nuanced intersections of race, class and gender. Indeed, she stands on the shoulders of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the man who said,

“The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”

Standing on the shoulders of our ancestors and standing firmly in the principles of equality, freedom, justice and community, I thank God that we still have folks who are willing to risk their freedom and lives to stand up for what’s right. 

Y’all remember Sankofa — that West African philosophy that says, you need to look back to your past to understand your future? Well, I have a question about the future of the City and County of Durham: what side of history do we want to be on? 

Do we want to be on the same side of history as the Woolworth company, which, by the way, was just enforcing the law in denying four A&T teenagers a soda and a cheeseburger? Do we want to be on the same side of history as the bus driver in Montgomery, who was in line with the law of his time, in hauling Mrs. Rosa Parks off to jail? 

Mark my words, 50 years from now, they will put that crumpled up “Boys Who Wore Grey” confederate statue, and others like it, in one of my father’s museums. They will be talking about Takiya Thompson and Bree Newsome like we talk about the student protestors of Tiennamen Square in Bejing the Soweto Student uprisings — protesting apartheid South Africa. I mentioned Bree Newsome — she’s another millennial activist who scaled the flagpole at the South Carolina state house, to rip down the Confederate battle flag. For that act of Civil Disobedience, he was arrested for trespassing, destruction of public property, and defacing monuments on capital grounds. These women are our generation’s Rosa Parks. Colin Kaepernick is our generation’s Muhammad Ali, and Black Lives Matter is our generation’s Civil Rights Movement. 

I asked my ancestors this morning if I could speak my truth, and they gave me their permission. Baba Chuck, Auntie Maya Angelou, Granny Franny —  CAN I SPEAK MY TRUTH? 

Because King has a message for Durham. 

During Jim Crow, those segregation laws were not worth the paper they were printed on. The laws were not based in any valid principle, they were written to denigrate, disgrace, insult, and remind black people of their subservience. I maintain that the same is true for the Boys Who Wore Grey. When I heard that valued at $71,000, I said to who? Who did the appraisal? Show me the receipts. That cheap metal statue crumpled up as soon as it hit the ground. Like aluminium foil, it just sort of collapsed under its own weight. And it’s part of a justification for felony charges being brought up against those who pulled it down.

Now I’m not saying the folks who tore down the statue shouldn’t be held accountable. They knew what they were doing was controversial and illegal. Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, Ghandi and Jesus. Even our Mayor Steve Schewel was arrested for Civil Disobedience. There’s a consequence to civil disobedience, that’s what makes it a sacrifice. 

I’m just saying, in my opinion, they don’t need felony charges. They were just… redecorating.

I’m going to be vulnerable with y’all… As an African, who will never know the true names of his ancestors, whose great-grandparents were enslaved by Boys Who Wore Grey. Whose grandfather grew up sharecropping on a plantation in Scotland-neck North Carolina, where a Holocaust is celebrated, as Southern culture. I didn’t even realize at the time, how much psychic weight I was carrying until that heavy lump of metal and stone hit the ground like a meteor. It sent shockwaves through our collective consciousness. It was an overwhelming existential experience .. I could hear my ancestors.. rejoicing. 

If we want to think about an appropriate consequence, we should consider giving them the key to the city. 

That is just the opinion of a life-long Durham millennial resident. Keep in mind, that we are the fastest growing demographic in this city and the largest voting bloc in this country. We are future leaders of Durham, of North Carolina and of America. 

I’m almost done.

Here’s a fun fact — did you know, that the states of Alabama and Mississippi have a different name for MLK Day? They call it Robert E. Lee and Martin Luther King Day. Why? Because they petty. They heard the Stevie hit on the radio, they saw the writing on the wall and they were MAD that they were being forced to celebrate King, so they choose to insult his legacy, by pairing his birthday with a Confederate general’s.

They wanted to remind Black people of our inferiority. But times are changing.

photo by Chrystal Kelly

photo by Chrystal Kelly

In Arkansas, the federal holiday, which was first recognized in 1985, has always been called “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday and Robert E Lee’s Birthday” — that is, until, 2017. After decades of static bigotry, they finally changed the name to Martin Luther King Day, within months of our monument coming down. 

King has words for why this is the case. In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, King said,

“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

Civil Rights leaders have been fighting for decades to have confederate statues come down, to have buildings re-named and historical injustices addressed. King taught us that you can’t always work within the system. Just look at Durham. 24-hours after our confederate monument came down, what happened? Gov. Roy Cooper called for all monuments to come down. 

That’s worth repeating.

24-hours after Durham’s Confederate monument came down, Gov. Roy Cooper called for all Confederate monuments to come down. Not because the General Assembly allowed it, not because City Council created an ordinance, but because the people took action. Civil Disobedience is the highest form of patriotism.

One more time: Sankofa. Let’s look back, to move forward. 

Let’s look back to Stagville plantation in North Durham, one of the biggest plantations in the state; let’s look back at our legacy enslavement and tobacco; let’s look back to Julian Abele, the architect of Duke Chapel and much of Duke University’s campus, who wasn’t even allowed into the buildings he designed; Let’s look back to Urban Renewal and Hwy 147 which opened the veins Hayti Neighborhood and Black Wall Street. Let’s look back at the racist housing policies such as steering and redlining that stymied the establishment of a Black middle class. Let’s look back to the rampant gentrification, and disinvestment; the destruction of housing projects, and discrimination in our departments, campuses, neighborhoods and communities!

We don’t just need to tear down our Confederate monuments. We need to tear down our systems of white privilege. We need to tear down xenophobia, and the Muslim-phobia. We need to tear down the deportation and targeting of our latinx immigrant community, we need to tear down HB2-142, and LGBT-phobia; and to the men this room, we need to tear down our toxic masculinity, patriarchy and sexism. We need to tear it all down so that we can create something that is more just, equitable, liberating for everybody, especially those pushed to the social margins.

Because that’s what King would have wanted us to do. On his birthday. 

Thank you. 

Chrystal Kelly is a Durham based, concept driven, photographer. She specializes in creative portraiture and fine art photography. See more of her work at Shattering Light Photography.
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  • Reply January 13, 2018

    Rob Cotter

    We need to be reminded in positive ways, over and over again about the struggles prior generations faced for us. Because those struggles are what makes us beautiful.
    Thank you and God Bless.

  • Reply January 14, 2018

    Ann McKown

    Thank you Pierce Freelon for a truly remarkable speech. It is my hope that the entire white community will hear your truth. There are many who already do.

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