Several hundred people marched through downtown Raleigh on Monday to celebrate the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a civil rights leader they honored as someone with “the strength to love” and “courage to act.”
They marched and sang Stevie Wonder’s version of “Happy Birthday” from his “Hotter Than July” album released 38 years ago to honor King, who would have been 89 this year.
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Marchers stepped briskly along Fayetteville Street from the Capitol to Memorial Auditorium in the subfreezing weather. President Donald Trump’s derogatory comments from last week, disparaging Haiti and African countries, were a dissonant chord that reverberated through the tribute to the man remembered for speeches and words that are celebrated and quoted decades later.
“I don’t think you can defend those statements while honoring Dr. King’s legacy,” said John Burns, a Wake County commissioner who took part in the march. “I’m glad to see all the people out here. These are smiling faces, not angry faces.”
Irving Joyner, a Durham attorney who has represented the state NAACP in some of the recent lawsuits against North Carolina lawmakers, said “you never know what to expect from Trump.”
Trump, who spent Martin Luther King Jr. Day at his golf course in Florida, has denied making the remarks and had a response to a reporter on Sunday who asked him, “What do you say to people who say you’re a racist?”
“No, no, I’m not a racist,” Trump told reporters Sunday as he headed to dinner at his golf club. “I am the least racist person you have ever interviewed.”
“It gets crazier and crazier,” Joyner said while taking a break from the marching in Raleigh on Monday. “It adds to the intensity among people out here.”
William Foster, a 68-year-old Raleigh resident who goes to the march each year, said he was not too surprised by the comments last week.
“Actually, it’s gotten to the point where you expect something ignorant to come out of his mouth,” Foster said.
What Foster found more significant about those marching through the streets of Raleigh to honor King was that many of the marchers were alive when King was leading protests and rallying the country to dream of a day when people are not “judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” He hoped the message and fight would be passed along to the younger generations.
Regina Monroe, Elaine Batchelor and Mildred Woodard drove to Raleigh from Zebulon with teenagers and younger children from the Touching The Heart Deliverance Ministry and the youth group POW WOW, or power of the word, words of wisdom.
“We’re just making sure we remember what he fought for,” Monroe said as Alexis Hinton, 18, Josh Staton, 17, Jamarr Hinton, 14, Jasmine Batchelor 11, Isaac Delacerda, 10, and Connor Zoa, 3, soaked in the atmosphere.
They spoke of King’s vision, his courage and his willingness to lay his life on the line to fight for his dream of economic equality and racial justice. “I think we need more people like him to stand up for people who are afraid to speak out,” Hinton added in while the adults weighed their messages for the younger generations.
Angela R. Bryant, a state senator from Nash County and chairwoman of the N.C. Legislative Black Caucus, released a statement over the weekend stating that Trump’s remarks, and the recent battles in North Carolina over election maps ruled to be unconstitutional racial and partisan gerrymanders, highlighted the “importance of the national celebration” of King’s birthday.
“This annual call to action and remembrance to oppose racism and discrimination in all its forms is needed to expose and root out the deep-seated beliefs in group domination, superiority and oppression that are still prevalent from the highest governmental levels to the personal level of our day to day interactions,” Bryant said in the statement. “The NC Legislative Black Caucus is a part of this legacy of change and fights everyday to root out racism and all forms of discrimination in our state. During this sacred commemoration, let’s recommit to take action against racism and oppression wherever we are everyday.”