Duluth reflects on progress, challenges at Martin Luther King Day ceremony

The killing of George Floyd, the COVID-19 pandemic and the rise of white supremacy were among the topics discussed at Monday's annual ceremony.

Diona Johnson sings “Lift Every Voice and Sing” during Duluth’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day rally Monday. Because of the pandemic the event was live-streamed from Peace United Church of Christ. (Steve Kuchera /

For more than 30 years, community members have gathered in downtown Duluth for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, chanting and waving signs as they seek to keep warm on the march to the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center for the traditional rally that serves as both a point of reflection and as a call to action.

This year, like with so many other events, organizers had to get creative in scheduling a program to mark the 92nd birthday of the civil rights icon.

The solution: a noon rally from a nearly empty Peace United Church of Christ, broadcast on YouTube to an audience of several hundred area residents.

"It's not the ideal gathering that we thought about and that we wanted," emcee Daniel Oyinloye acknowledged. "It was always great to fill the DECC so that we could listen to each other, as a community together — the drumming, the music, the singing, the poetry, the encouragement, the rising voices.

"Yet, even though we are not physically together today, we are very grateful," he told attendees. "We are grateful that you have chosen to join us via the livestream. We are grateful that we are honoring the legacy of Dr. King, and all the efforts in the Northland to work for justice."


Master of ceremony Daniel Oyinloye speaks during Monday’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day event at Peace United Church of Christ. (Steve Kuchera /

After a year that included a deadly pandemic, worldwide protests following the death of George Floyd and divisive political events that culminated in the recent mob storming of the U.S. Capitol, organizers went with a dual theme for the virtual rally: "Our Rising Voices: A Call for Bold Social Action" and "Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?" — the title of King's final book.

"I understand and recognize that 2020 was not only hard, but ultimately difficult on so many levels," ChaQuana McEntyre said. "The beauty of starting a new year is the opportunity to begin new. It is as simple as deciding that you want to do things different than how you did it when it didn't work."

McEntyre is a community advocate who serves as CEO of Families Rise Together and Najen Enterprise. She told attendees that they need to "become intentional about how we show up, why we show up and when we show up."

"Everything that we do today has to be about planting seeds for tomorrow," McEntyre said. "The prayers that you pray today have to be about planting seeds for tomorrow, for our next generation. When you speak up today, it is not about speaking up for yourself. It is about speaking up for the children who are watching you, for the adults who find themselves to be part of the voiceless. You have to be bold. You have to understand leadership and what our community needs when we are raising our voices as leaders."

She added: "King's death was not the end. It was merely the beginning."

Aside from forcing the rally online, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic also played a central role in this year's program. Health officials noted that the virus has disproportionately affected people of color, who are already more susceptible to serious health issues and economic issues.


Kathy Nelson, retired pastor of Peace United Church of Christ, accepts the Drum Major for Peace Award from Carl Crawford Monday. (Steve Kuchera /

Attendees were urged to get vaccinated when they have the opportunity, with doctors explaining that the substances have been rigorously tested on people of all backgrounds and shown to be safe.

Dr. Verna Thornton paraphrased former President Barack Obama, who once stated: "When America gets a cold, sometimes Black folks get pneumonia."

"We know that because of our predisposition to pre-existing factors such as obesity, hypertension, cardiac disease, sickle cell (and) cancer, that we are more likely to not only contract COVID-19, but also to have more serious morbidities, and, in fact, mortality," she said.

"The second reason you need to take this virus is, basically, because of income. We know that the majority of African heritage people are essential workers — whether it's in retail, whether it's in fast food restaurants, whether it is in health care as medical assistants and orderlies, and so forth. We have to go to work. And so if we get the vaccine we're more likely to be able to be employed consistently and (stay) healthy."

Viewers also heard from Duluth City Council President Renee Van Nett about efforts to address homelessness through yurt communities and Janet Kennedy, the city's first Black councilor, who helped create the Duluth African Heritage Commission.

The Rev. Kathy Nelson, who recently retired after more than 30 years as pastor at Peace Church, was recognized with the Duluth NAACP's Drum Major for Peace Award.

Tom Olsen has covered crime and courts for the Duluth News Tribune since 2013. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth and a lifelong resident of the city. Readers can contact Olsen at 218-723-5333 or
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