Inspired by social justice, Martin Luther King Jr. Day marchers power through cold

There were 25 minutes to go before march time and Scot Bol was creating a mindset. "We're northerners, we can do this," Bol said as more than 150 bundled-up people packed a hallway at the Washington Center at Lake Avenue and Fourth Street. "Sing ...

Rachel Anderson
Rachel Anderson carries her bundled-up niece Jaimya Phifer, 2, on her shoulders during the Martin Luther King Jr. Day rally Monday. At left, her father Tom Anderson carries a placard reading in part "Respect everybody, him & her." (Bob King /

There were 25 minutes to go before march time and Scot Bol was creating a mindset.

"We're northerners, we can do this," Bol said as more than 150 bundled-up people packed a hallway at the Washington Center at Lake Avenue and Fourth Street. "Sing loud and you won't be cold."

The students from Duluth East High School were already psyched for the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day march to the 30th annual rally at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center. They had a sign party beforehand and were loaded up. So many signs, they shared them with others in the march.

"I (heart) social justice."



"MLK rules."

At 11 a.m., NAACP local President Claudie Washington took to the blowhorn brought by Duluth Police Chief Gordon Ramsay.

"Get out to the street," Washington blared.

By 11:05, there were scores of people assembled on Lake Avenue, and Pastor Cathy Schuyler took over the horn.

"We shall overcome," she sang, and the march was on. The East students led the way.

There were politicians, police officers, pastors and familiar figures. But mostly, as Schuyler would point out at the invocation for the rally at Symphony Hall, it was just ordinary people asking to keep King's spirit alive.

"If you want peace, work for justice."



"One global family."

This march wasn't just a spoke in a national celebration of King and his work for social justice. It was localized.

"Thank you, Duluth, for homeless human rights," one sign read, a nod to the recent City Council action recognizing just one of the social issues people have worked on in the city.

And the song "This Little Light of Mine" could be heard, but was altered with "Marching down Lake Avenue, I'm gonna let it shine."

It was cold, tear-inducing weather, but the sun shone on the marchers.

Making the turn onto Superior and its expected wind tunnel, it was "Down by the Riverside" and "Got My Mind Set on Freedom."

It was a bitter cold now, but Washington urged those in the front lines to slow down, "so they can read your signs."

It worked, apparently, as drivers honked their horns just before the turn into the Wells Fargo building and the shelter of the skywalk to the DECC. It had been 16 minutes of dedicated outdoor marching.


Now a banjo player could shed his glove and pick a tune for those in the back of the march, where straggling children with signs strapped to their tiny bodies walked with parents pushing strollers.

Drums called just outside Symphony Hall, where cider, punch and cookies were put out on tables.

Last Wednesday would have been King's 85th birthday, so it made sense that youth would be followed by inspiring octogenarians when it came to speakers at the rally inside the hall.

Jireh Mabamba yelled, "Amandla," and asked the crowd to respond with "Awethu." That's the chant - power to the people - made familiar throughout the era of anti-aparthied rallies in South Africa and, later, worldwide.

Mabamba is a student at the University of Minnesota Duluth. His family sought refuge in South Africa from persecution in the Democratic Republic of Congo. His father, a pastor, spoke out against rebels taking children to fight in its army. Had Nelson Mandela not "stood up for truth," Mabamba's family wouldn't have had a place to go.

"I am not African-American like Dr. King," Mabamba told the audience. "I am an African like Nelson Mandela."

He said both men inspired people to take action, "putting others before themselves."

He said Mandela, who died late last year, "chose unity" over bitterness and revenge, and worked to bring justice to all in South Africa.

Both King and Mandela inspired people to find the "power to keep marching," Mabamba said.

"Let's not end our march here," he said. "The power is ours."

Educator Rogier Gregoire told the crowd that "being a black man in America for 80 years has made me a radical."

He spoke about changing what education means, saying school "should be about human development, not just vocational development."

He urged teachers to let students continue pursuing their natural curiosities, an effort to make sense out of their own experiences. He said he wants students to feel free to make inquiries, especially if it leads to a better human condition.

"You have the right to ask a question," he said. "Your mind should serve your heart."

Perry Kennedy said he couldn't agree more. That's what he did in two decades in the military and two more working for the Minnesota Department of Transportation. Since coming to Duluth in the early 1960s, the 83-year-old has always challenged himself, asking "Where do I want to be?"

After retiring 25 years ago, he asked again. He helped form the Twin Ports African American Men's Group. He also joined the NAACP and the Masons.

His legacy resonates in the creation of the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial, said Henry Banks when announcing that Kennedy was this year's Drum Major for Peace Award winner.

"You should all meet him and shake his hand," Banks said, saying Kennedy's voice was strongest in the design of the words at the memorial that asks people to remember the past -- the lynchings in Duluth -- to learn from it. Kennedy insisted that the word "atonement" be included on the memorial wall, and that sent a powerful message, Banks said.

"You don't have to hang in the guilt," Kennedy said. "But you have to listen. Take wrong and turn it around. Put right where wrong has been."

Kennedy said he was "humbled and very proud" to receive the award. Tom Potter, who runs the Fourth Street Market, also received a Drum Major award.

For all the events of Monday and all the talk of social justice that rightly surrounds any celebration of King, it comes down some simple things for Kennedy.

"Racism is most ignorant. It doesn't make sense," he said. "No person created themselves ... so who can say that you are (something) and the other person is not. Pure ignorance."

Gregoire said that at age 80, he's tired of talk about race.

"It's amazing this notion of race has persisted so long," he said. "It's a myth."

A response both men would agree with was reflected on another sign held high during the march:

"The highest good is love."

Related Topics: EDUCATION
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