A Creative Protest: MLK Comes to Durham

Throughout the years of his leadership in the Civil Rights Movement, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made several trips to Durham and gave six public speeches. King’s powerful advocacy of nonviolent collective action inspired many of Durham’s equal rights activists to occupy segregated spaces, and to promote black political action and the improvement of conditions for the impoverished.

DURHAM, 1953

Rencher N. Harris (third from right), businessman and civil rights activist, was elected as the first African American to serve on Durham’s City Council.


The Montgomery Bus Boycott sparked by the arrests of Claudette Colvin, Mary Louise Smith, and Rosa Parks showed the power of collective organizing by local African Americans. King was elected as president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, and the movement’s successful integration of the bus system in 1956 led to his national recognition.

DURHAM, 1956

On October 15, 1956, King gave his first speech in Durham, at Hillside High School. King, whose civil rights leadership was already receiving national recognition, was invited to speak by black businessman and family friend H.M. “Mickey” Michaux, Jr. At the time, Michaux served as chairman of the Durham Business and Professional Chain (DBPC) trade week program and suggested King provide remarks. Despite hesitancy from some members of the DBPC about bringing a Baptist preacher to speak, Michaux convinced them to invite King.

Doors will be open to you now that were never open in the past.... Be ready for opportunities.

DURHAM, 1957

On June 23, the Reverend Douglas Moore, a classmate of King at Boston University School of Theology, led six young African Americans in a sit-in at the segregated Royal Ice Cream Parlor. That year, the Durham Bulls baseball team saw their first black players and demonstrators attempted to integrate seating at the Durham Athletic Park for opening night. At Duke University, the first black students were admitted to a summer teaching program.


Recognizing the importance of collective power during the Montgomery bus boycott, King and sixty civil rights leaders met in Atlanta, Georgia to form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The organization was dedicated to ending legalized segregation and the disenfranchisement of African Americans through peaceful action. King was elected as the SCLC’s first president.

DURHAM, 1958

In April, King attended the Summit Ministers Conference and Workshop on voting registration that was held in Durham at the St. Joseph AME Church. King also attended a voter registration rally at the St. Mark AME Zion Church during the visit.


A series of nonviolent protests, called sit-ins, kicked off on February 1st at the Woolworth’s department store lunch counter in Greensboro. The protest was organized and led by four students from North Carolina A&T, who were inspired by King’s success with nonviolent protest. The sit-in revitalized the civil rights movement as it emboldened black college students to stage sit-ins in dozens of southern towns and cities.

DURHAM, 1960

From left to right: Rev. Abernathy, Rev. Dr. King, Rev. Moore, and Lacy Streeter at the Durham Woolworth’s Department Store.

One week after the start of the Greensboro Woolworth’s sit-in, North Carolina College (now North Carolina Central University) students in Durham organized sit-ins at Durham lunch counters on February 8. King visited Durham on February 16 and stopped by Woolworth’s, though the lunch counter was closed due to the protest. He was joined by the Rev. Douglas Moore, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy of Montgomery, and Lacy Streeter, a North Carolina College student leader. Later that day, King gave his “A Creative Protest” speech, often referred to as “Fill up the Jails,” at White Rock Baptist Church on Fayetteville Street to a standing-room-only crowd.

DURHAM, 1962

On August 12th, a crowd estimated at 500 gathered at the segregated Howard Johnson Restaurant for a demonstration; the protests continued for nearly a year with activists meeting at the restaurant every Sunday.

DURHAM, 1963

After a month of massive demonstrations in favor of integrating public facilities, newly elected Mayor Wensell “Wense” Grabarek formed the Durham Interim Committee on Race Relations. By the end of the year, civil rights protests and boycotts had forced most Durham restaurants, hotels, swimming pools, movie theaters, and libraries to integrate.


On August 28, 1963, King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The demonstration, attended by an estimated 250,000 people, including several buses filled with Durham activists, was organized to support federal Civil Rights legislation being debated in Congress. Durham’s Floyd McKissick (left of King), Chairman of the Congress of Racial Equity (CORE), was a key organizer of the march.


Originally proposed by President John F. Kennedy in 1963, the Civil Rights Act was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on July 2, 1964. The act outlawed segregation in public facilities, added enforcement mechanisms to speed up school desegregation, and banned both racial and gender discrimination in employment. King stood behind President Johnson as he signed the bill into law.

DURHAM, 1964

On November 13th, King addressed the Southern Political Science Association conference, which was held at Durham’s Jack Tar Hotel. By this time, King had become the face of the Civil Rights Movement and would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize weeks after this visit to Durham.

During this same November trip, King visited both of Durham’s universities. In the speech at Duke University’s Page Auditorium, King called for equal educational opportunities for black students.

…we have come a long long way, but have a long long way to go.

Later that evening King spoke to students and faculty in NCC’s McDougald Gymnasium. This would become his final speech in Durham.

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.


President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law to prohibit the racial discrimination that African Americans across the south faced at the polls. The signing of the act came on the heels of the Selma-Montgomery voting rights marches led by King and other Civil Rights leaders. Johnson hastened the signing after police brutally attacked peaceful African American demonstrators in Alabama. King and Rosa Parks attended the signing.

DURHAM, 1965

Durham County Schools began to desegregate after the passage of the Civil Rights Act; full integration of the city and county school system was not realized until 1970.

DURHAM, 1967

Asa Spaulding, president of the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company,was elected as the first African American Durham County Commissioner.


King was scheduled to visit Durham in early April of 1968 as part of a campaign to promote African American candidates in an upcoming election. However, he cancelled the trip and headed to Memphis, Tennessee where sanitation workers had been striking for better pay and safe working conditions. On April 4, King was shot at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis by James Earl Ray; he later died at St. Joseph Hospital.

Honoring King at Duke

The initial response to King’s assassination on the predominately white Duke University campus was mostly remorseful. Friend and former Morehouse College classmate of King, Dr. Samuel DuBois Cook who was the only black faculty member on campus, held out hope for racial peace while some African American students were less optimistic. There were reports of some white students cheering at the news.

However, many of Duke’s students united for a “Silent Vigil” in honor of King. The week-long protest advocated racial equality and supported a higher minimum wage and collective bargaining rights for Duke’s nonacademic employees. Nearly 1,500 students, employees, and faculty members took part and mourned King.

Downtown Demonstrations

On April 5, 1968, between 2,000 and 3,500 students and other residents marched downtown from the North Carolina College (NCC) campus and held a peaceful demonstration outside City Hall (now the Durham Arts Council). Speakers included NCC student government president Douglas Gill, leader of the Duke University African American student organization Joe Thompson, activist Howard Fuller, and Mayor Wensell Grabarek. African American leaders from the community made a proposal for the city to honor King’s life.

Tensions rose in the days following King’s assassination and violent protests broke out in Durham. Reportedly, thirteen fires were started by arsonists throughout Durham including at apartments near NCC, a grocery store on University Drive, and an entire block on Ninth Street. Troops from the National Guard were dispatched to Durham and other cities across the state, and a curfew was imposed from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m.

King’s Legacy in Durham

While the legacy of King in Durham often focuses on the Civil Rights Movement, he also left a lasting impact on the community’s fight against poverty, which he emphasized had no racial boundary. In 1967, King and the SCLC started the Poor People’s Campaign to promote better working and living conditions for all, and to remedy the inequitable distribution of wealth and income throughout the nation. Following King’s assassination, Durham had its own Poor People’s Campaign march, which coincided with a larger march in Washington D.C.

King’s inspirational words and leadership encouraged generations of activists in Durham and beyond to confront racial and class inequities in public spaces, workplaces, and politics. In continuing the fight for racial and economic justice, these activists sought to extend King’s legacy of speaking truth to power well into the 21st century.

Image Credits

  • Cover image: King delivering his "Creative Protest" speech at the White Rock Baptist Church. Courtesy of the Herald-Sun.
  • Rencher Harris being sworn in as a city council. Courtesy of the Durham County Library.
  • Rosa Parks being fingerprinted by police after refusing to move to the back of the bus. Creative Commons.
  • King speaking at Hillside High School for a trade week program. Courtesy of the Herald-Sun.
  • Rev. Moore and the Royal Ice Cream Parlor sit-in participants. Courtesy of the Durham County Library, North Carolina Collection.
  • King in front of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference headquarters. Courtesy of Blackpast.org.
  • King signing autographs after speaking. Courtesy of the State Archives of North Carolina.
  • Members of the Greensboro Woolworth sit-in. Courtesy of the Greensboro Register.
  • King delivering his "Creative Protest" speech at the White Rock Baptist Church. Courtesy of the Herald-Sun.
  • King visiting the Durham Woolworth Lunch Counter. Courtesy of the Herald-Sun.
  • Crowd protesting segregation at Howard Johnson's Restaurant. Courtesy of the Herald-Sun.
  • Mayor Wensell “Wense” Grabarek. Courtesy of the Durham County Library, North Carolina Collection.
  • King and Floyd McKissick Sr. at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Creative Commons.
  • President Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act. Creative Commons.
  • King speaking at the Jack Tar Hotel. Courtesy of the State Archives of North Carolina.
  • King speaking at Duke University's Paige Auditorium. Courtesy Duke University Archives.
  • King speaking at North Carolina Central University's McDougald Gymnasium. Courtesy of the State Archives of North Carolina.
  • President Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act. Creative Commons.
  • Floyd B. McKissick and his wife, Evelyn, escort their daughter, Andree, and Henry Vickers to their first day of classes at Carr Junior High School. Courtesy of the Herald-Sun.
  • Asa Spaulding. North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company Archives.
  • King at Lorraine Motel. Courtesy of AP.
  • Student with Silent Vigil sign. Courtesy of the Herald-Sun.
  • Student protesting at the Duke University Silent Vigil sign. Courtesy of the Duke University Archives.
  • Student protesting at the Duke University Silent Vigil sign. Courtesy of the Duke University Archives.
  • Large crowd gathering at downtown Durham following King's assassination. Courtesy of the Herald-Sun.
  • Police officer in riot gear standing on the corner of Corcoran and West Main streets enforcing the curfew. Courtesy of the Herald-Sun.
  • Poor People's Campaign march. Courtesy of the Herald-Sun.