Durham’s unique, strong Black history paired with geographical location set the stage for the city to be on the forefront of the Civil Rights movement. Durham’s progressive Black youth tired of the generations of poor treatment spilling over from the atrocities of slavery and who emboldened by the Civil Rights movement took the lead with non-violent protests for better education, housing, employment, and treatment.
The city became a magnet for the leaders of the movement. One such leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., came to Durham frequently to give speeches and lend his support to Durham’s youth on the forefront who inspired him. On the third Monday of every January we honor the great Martin Luther King Jr. and his work, but that wasn’t always the case. What inspires us today and inspired those on the right side of history during his time, terrified and angered those who benefited from the systems built on white supremacy ideology.
With help from NCCU Archivist Andre Vann, author of several incrediBULL North Carolina history books such as "Durham's Hayti" and "African Americans of Durham County," we've uncovered that King spent more time in the Bull City that previously thought. It was his connection to Reverend Mickey Michaux that brought him to Durham and the brave actions of Durham's youth that kept him coming back. King recognized Durham's key role in the Civil Rights movement.
Martin Luther King Jr. was born on January 15th, 1929 and assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4th, 1968. A coward’s bullet cut his life short but his legacy will live on forever. Dr. King accomplished a great deal in his 39 years proving with love anything is possible. Nearly 51 years after his death we still have more work to do. That is why Martin Luther King Day is a day ON, not a day OFF. A day of service. A day of honoring King’s greatest question, “What are you doing for others?”
From 1955 to 1968, King traveled over 6 million miles and gave over 2500 speeches. Six of those speeches and were right here in Durham. Five of those six speeches are well documented, but a little research further into King’s time in Durham, with the help of Andre Vann, turns up sixth speech. The Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University documents a speech King made in Durham on April 9th, 1958. According to their records, he spoke at the Summit Conference on Registration and Voting at St. Mark AME Zion Church on that April evening. No information was given on this speech beyond that.
Dr. King had originally been scheduled to deliver another speech in Durham on April 4th, 1968, the day he was murdered, but a last-minute change of schedule had him in Memphis instead to lend his support to the sanitation workers strike.
King’s first visit and speech in Durham was October 15th, 1956 at Hillside High School. His most well-publicized visit was on February 16, 1960, when King, accompanied by Reverends Ralph Abernathy and Douglas Moore, as well as other Durham Civil Rights activists, stopped by the Woolworth’s that had closed its lunch counter due to sit-ins and he spoke with the protesters whose work inspired him.
Woolworth lunch counters had begun in Durham February 8th just one week after David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blaire Jr., and Joseph McNeil started the Woolworth lunch counter sit-ins 53 miles away in Greensboro, North Carolina and forever became immortalized as the Greensboro Four.
Later that day after meeting with the protesters and hearing about the strides being made in the movement in Durham, King gave what is known as his “Fill Up the Jails” speech, originally titled “A Creative Protest,” to over 1200 people, standing room only, at White Rock Baptist Church.
He began the speech, which was later turned into a pamphlet for the movement, by saying, “Victor Hugo once said that there is nothing in all the world more powerful than an idea whose time has come. The dynamic idea whose time has come today is the quest for freedom and human dignity. Men are tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression. They are tired of being plunged into the abyss of exploitation where they experience the bleakness of nagging despair. And so all over the world formerly oppressed people are making it palpably clear that they are determined to be free.
“You students of North Carolina have captured this dynamic idea in a marvelous manner. You have taken the undying and passionate yearning for freedom and filtered it in your own soul and fashioned it into a creative protest that is destined to be one of the glowing epics of our time. For the past few days, you have moved in a uniquely, meaningful orbit imparting heat and light to distant satellites.
“In this period when civil rights legislation hangs in an uncertain balance in the congress—when the recalcitrance of some public officials in the South instills us with frustration and despondency, the spectacular example of determined and dedicated young people demanding their rights gives glorious inspiration to all decent persons not only of our nation, but throughout the world. You have taken hold of the tradition of resolute non-violent resistance and you are carrying it forward toward the end of bringing all of us closer to the day of full freedom.”
The place of King’s rousing speech is now an on-ramp to the Durham Freeway; the physically divisive 147. The church was one of the many losses in the name of Urban Renewal. Funds were raised and a new White Rock Baptist Church was erected at 3400 Fayetteville Street, which continues to operate in Durham to this day. The Durham Woolworth building would also be demolished much later and it became one of the many properties that ‘once was’ where the 27 stories of the towering One City Center building now resides.
Then Durham Mayor Emmanuel Evans responded to the protests and King’s consequential visit by asking the Human Relations committee to negotiate a settlement with the protesters. The protesters agreed to pause their protests during these negotiations, but they were never invited to the table to negotiate.
White officials and Durham’s black leadership couldn’t reach an agreement and thus the sit-ins continued, albeit with reduced intensity, frequency, and duration. On July 25th, 1960, just short of six months after the protests began in North Carolina, Woolworth dropped its segregation policy at all of its lunch counters.
On November 13th, 1964 King spoke at the Jack Tar Hotel addressing the Southern Political Science Association and then went on to speak at Duke University at Page Auditorium with an audience so large students sat outside the auditorium and listened to King’s speech over speakers.
His final speech in Durham was at North Carolina College, which is now North Carolina Central University (NCCU), to over 5000 people at North Carolina College. Some records have stated that this speech took place a week after his two speeches on November 13th, 1964, but NCCU records show he spoke there on the same day at 8:00 pm in the evening. All of which speaks volumes of his character, determination, and stamina, as well as the vital role that Durham, North Carolina held in the Civil Rights movement.
King’s final public spoken words in Durham were on the stage in McDougald Gymnasium at NCCU. “We must realize that violence and hatred are dangerous and tragic forces to be alive in any society. Violence is both impractical and immoral in the struggle for racial justice. There is another way-the way of love. I’m not talking about an affectionate, sentimental quality. It would be nonsense to tell oppressed people to love their violent oppressors in an affectionate sense. I’m talking about something much deeper.
“If we will remain awake, standing up against evil in our societies, struggling in every creative movement to get rid of the evils that cloud our days, then we will see that brighter day; then we will see that new America. I have faith in that new day. I believe it is coming.”