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The message was renewal

PHOTO BY KIRK ROSS. Benjamin Chavis, a native of Oxford, called on those at the Martin Luther King Jr. Day service at First Baptist Church to recommit themselves to the ideals of the civil rights movement.

By Kirk Ross
Staff Writer

CHAPEL HILL —In May of 1960, when Martin Luther King Jr. spoke in Chapel Hill – first on Sunday night at the Hargraves Center, then on Monday evening to a packed audience at Hill Hall on the UNC campus – “the movement,” as it is still known, was at a turning point.

On Monday, with another packed house, this one at First Baptist Church on Roberson Street, those gathered in King’s memory said a turning point had again arrived and urged renewal of purpose.

The theme of this years King Celebration, which began with speeches and song at Peace and Justice Plaza before the march to the church, was “Renewing Dr. King’s Call to Conscience: Not One Step Backward!”

As it was during that evening at the Hargraves Center in 1960, the event was part revival, part rally, interspersed with prayer and song.

The keynote speaker for the occasion was Benjamin Chavis, introduced by civil rights attorney Al McSurely as “a big deal and the real deal.”

As a native of nearby Oxford, Chavis, whose recent resume includes director of the Million Man march and cofounder of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, recalled many connections to Orange County.

“I’ve always had a special feeling about Orange County,” he said.

As one of the South’s key civil rights organizers, Chavis was falsely convicted in 1971 along with nine others of a firebombing during desegregation struggles in Wilmington. Chavis served 10 years in prison until an international effort to free the Wilmington 10 led to their convictions being overturned. His sentence, he said, mandated that he not serve time in a majority black prison, an impossibility. So he moved around a lot.

He was asked at one point where he wanted to go next. Chavis asked to be transferred to Orange County and was transferred to the Hillsborough Correctional Unit. There he enrolled in Duke University, where he eventually earned a doctorate in divinity.

“I wasn’t just going to serve time,” he said, “I was going to make time serve the movement and get an education.”

The recent shift in politics, he said, should serve to sharpen resolve.

“Our trials and tribulations ought to make us stronger not weaker,” he said.

Chavis acknowledged the historic role of Chapel Hill and Carrboro in the civil rights struggle and asked that residents renew their involvement in local efforts, including the NAACP’s advocacy on behalf of two sanitation workers fired by Chapel Hill. He also vowed to return here to assist the residents of Rogers Road with their efforts to get more residents on the public water system and improve conditions around the landfill.

Chavis, who is credited with coining the term environmental justice, said, “I’m not picking on Orange County. These problems are statewide. These problems are national – some would say they’re global. But you’re never going to have a global movement if the local base is not organized.”

Several speakers, including both mayors of Chapel Hill and Carrboro, said the change in leadership in Raleigh and Washington, D.C., will have serious repercussions.

“We’ve got some difficult times ahead,” said Michelle Laws, president of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro chapter of the NAACP. “But I’m convinced that we will stand together.”

The mayors said they’d like to see more involvement in lobbying elected officials and holding them accountable.

“I want you to make my job harder,” Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton said.

The event at First Baptist also featured the presentation of the NAACP’s annual awards.

St. Paul’s AME Church won the Rebecca Clark Award, which is given in honor of the late community leader and organizer for efforts to improve voter turnout.

The annual Martin Luther King Jr. Community Service Award went to Lorie Clark, a Carrboro native and longtime school social worker. Clark plays a key role in the schools’ Blue Ribbon Mentor Advocate program.

PHOTO BY KIRK ROSS. Lorie Clark (left) receives the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Community Service Award from NAACP chapter president Michelle Laws.

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