DURHAM — Former NAACP President Benjamin Jealous told a Duke University congregation Sunday that 21st-century civil rights struggles in North Carolina are “too familiar,” too much like battles fought from the civil rights era on.
At the annual service in honor of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., who was killed in Memphis in 1968 by an assassin’s bullet, Jealous took swings at laws passed with the backing of Gov. Pat McCrory and the Republican-led General Assembly.
“We are living in perilous times,” said Jealous, 41. “We are living in times when a small group of people have hijacked our state governments, (and) they’re sending us backwards fast. They’re setting up fights that seem too familiar.”
About 1,000 people joined the Duke Chapel event to hear speakers including Jealous; Marcus Benning, Duke’s Black Student Alliance president; Durham Mayor Pro Tempore Cora Cole-McFadden and Duke President Richard Brodhead address issues of social justice.
On Friday McCrory attended the state employees’ celebration of King’s legacy and earlier issued a statement honoring him: “In celebrating his rich legacy, we celebrate his life and the heritage of the civil rights movement that has strengthened us as individuals and as a nation.”
While recounting his experiences as a civil rights movement organizer in the early ’90s in the Deep South, Jealous urged North Carolinians to action. He voiced his support for “Moral Monday” protesters and his dissatisfaction with some statewide policies and with McCrory’s actions.
“The reality is that there’s already a silent majority in this state that believes in justice and believes in rights and believes what’s happening at the Raleigh state Capitol is taking us back when we need to go forward,” Jealous told attendees.
North Carolina’s new voter I.D. law, which was signed into law in August and requires voters to show photo identification at the polls, is under review by the U.S. Justice Department.
Groups including the NAACP claim the law would block minorities, specifically African-Americans and Latinos, from voting in elections.
Picking a cause
Jealous resigned from his position as NAACP president in November after receiving credit for attracting to the group the largest online membership of any civil rights organization. During his presidency, the organization saw its first multi-year membership growth in 20 years.
Jealous has worked with Amnesty International on issues such as using the death penalty on children and racial profiling. At Duke, a day before the national holiday honoring King, Jealous urged attendees to start taking on the problems they see in their communities.
Attendee Christopher Heart-Williams, an N.C. State senior, said he observes a lot of inequality in the state, and if he had to pick one issue to change, as Jealous suggested, he would work on trying to equalize residents’ treatment based on aspects such as race and class. He said he would be especially drawn to tackling those issues in a field like education.
“I would work toward bettering things for minority students like myself,” Heart-Williams said.
‘We need to go forward’
Community members had their own ideas of what needed changing in Durham and beyond and Jealous wasn’t the only speaker who took issue with new state laws and policies.
Benning, the Black Student Alliance president, had a laundry list of social issues he thought North Carolina was handling in ways that opposed the values King spoke about during his lifetime.
Rates of incarceration among black residents, the treatment of undocumented residents and voter I.D. laws were some of the issues Benning said proved there’s still a long way to go until North Carolina catches up with King’s dream.
Cole-McFadden said the theme and title of this year’s program, “50 Years: Backwards or Forward?” was “indeed appropriate” for the Durham community.
Brodhead reminded the community of the university’s history with integration and civil rights. Duke just celebrated its 50th anniversary of integration. It occurred started shortly after King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream,” speech when five black students began undergraduate studies at the school.
“This has been a time for us to renew our commitment,” Brodhead said. “We’ve come a long way, but it’s not the end of it. We learned that we we can’t give an education to anyone unless we open our doors to anyone.”
“We live in a world that has not been purged of inequalities,” he continued. “This is a time when we need to draw the memory of the civil rights movement closer to us.”