Hundreds marched through downtown Raleigh on Monday, hoisting signs with the slogan “Think, Act, Serve” and the profile of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
The marchers were part of a “40 Days of Peace” movement that urges all to work in their communities to reduce violence, promote conflict resolution and break down divisive barriers.
The Triangle Martin Luther King Jr. Committee, the sponsor of the march and other events throughout the long holiday weekend, chose King’s words from an Oberlin College commencement speech in June 1965 to underscore their mission.
“Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly,” the march organizers put on signs passed out to the Raleigh crowd. “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.”
The marchers sang and exchanged memories of King and hopes for the future as they made their way along Fayetteville Street from the State Capitol to the Duke Energy Performing Arts Center.
Many along the way mentioned their outrage over the deaths blacks at the hands of police that have made national headlines – of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Eric Garner in New York and 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland – and the social media hashtag “#BlackLivesMatter” that sprang up afterward.
They spoke of “Selma,” the powerful biopic about King and his campaign for equal voting rights despite violent opposition in the 1960s.
Those in the crowd who lived through the 1960s Civil Rights Movement spoke of the progress since then, but also talked of a new generation of activists looking to the slain civil rights leader to denounce social inequalities in the justice system that persist.
Debbie Harper, a 50-year-old Raleigh resident who grew up in Atlanta, recalled her parents marching with King. Though she has built a career successful enough to make it possible for her to shop in high-end department stores and boutiques, Harper had a T-shirt made because of her experiences in those shops.
Harper said she often senses clerks watching her and her son as if they are about to engage in illegal activity.
“My T-shirt represents racial profiling,” she said, with “I am a paying customer” in white letters on the the front of her shirt countering the “I am not a criminal” on the back.
Eddie Corbett, 63, of Raleigh was disappointed there was not a larger turnout on the 29th anniversary of the King holiday.
“He would think more people ought to be out here,” Corbett said reflecting on what King might think of North Carolina today. “People have made it. Once they arrive at their destination, they don’t see the need to lift others up.”
Others noticed this year’s crowd wasn’t as racially diverse as in previous marches.
Janet and Jeff Portzer of Apex were among the smattering of white marchers.
“We just came out because most people don’t,” Janet Portzer said. “I’m glad to see so many students here. It’s very much a young people’s crowd.”
Athens Drive High School students Christian Judkins, 16, and his sister Nia Judkins, 14, marched as part of an effort by First Baptist Church in downtown Raleigh to spread King’s message to younger generations.
The siblings said they thought King would be pleased with much 46 years after his assassination. But they thought he would be discouraged about sexism, stereotyping and inequalities that still pester society.
Christian Judkins elaborated about his feelings of being “targeted as a black male.”
“My mom has told me that if police say ‘Stop’ to just stop,” Christian explained.
The conversation he described echoed one that has been discussed often in the wake of the recent high-profile deaths of unarmed black men. Parents with black sons have talked about rules of survival they teach that underscore how some still are judged first by the color of their skin and not their character.
“You have to get to know someone,” Christian said. “You can’t just think of someone back then as now.”
King’s words and ideals lived on as the older generations embraced the young in downtown Raleigh as they all marched toward the future.