When Colin Kaepernick’s knee hit the grass of an NFL sideline while the national anthem played, he sparked a national dialogue about where protest belongs.

On Sunday, the dialogue from that protest was part of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day service—“From King to Kaepernick: Progress through Protest" in Duke Chapel. 

“From Montgomery to Birmingham…to the athletic fields across our nation—the power of protest shines a light forward,” said Benjamin Reese, vice president for institutional equity.

With drums, dancing, singing, jazz and speeches that combined a celebration of civil rights history with pressing calls for action, the Duke community remembered King from the pews of the chapel he wasn’t allowed to speak in when he visited campus in 1964. 

Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-council of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Funds, was the service’s keynote speaker. The LDF—which organizationally split from the NAACP in 1957—was founded in 1940 by Thurgood Marshall.

Ifill said one of the underlying misconceptions that manipulates the public’s view of protests is the expectation that only people whose jobs it is to fight for equality—like activists or civil rights lawyers—should be concerned with injustice. 

“This belief is perhaps the reason that so many people become angry when they see others taking a stand or speaking out about injustice,” the lawyer said. “Athletes should run, jump, throw a ball, swim, swing a racket for our entertainment, some believe, but should play no role as citizens in the necessary work of building this democracy.” 

Ifill noted the aptness of the event’s theme to current politics, citing prominent protests in recent  years such as the Women’s March, the #MeToo movement and protests against unarmed black people being killed by police. She also noted the activism against Confederate monuments and their removal—including in Durham and at Duke’s chapel.

“That which we exalt reveals what we value and treasure, and what our highest aspirations are,” she said. “So I want to thank [President Vincent Price] for the action that he took here.”

Noting that she was speaking from the perspective of a lawyer and not a protestor, Ifill drew parallels between the roles of civil rights lawyers and protestors.

“Civil rights lawyers and protestors share the commitment to fight for a fair and just society, that this country respects the humanity and dignity of every person within our borders and that the constitutional rights of citizens are entitled to protection,” Ifill said. “I have often said that civil rights work—whether lawyering or activism—is what I call ‘democracy maintenance work.’”

She continued the analogy of home maintenance work on democracy, saying that they sometimes find places that need minor fixes, and sometimes they find problems that need more serious work, like total electrical rewiring. 

But at times they also find much more alarming damage.

“Sometimes, sometimes we find dangerous rot at the foundation of our democracy…. I believe we are at just such a moment today,” she said. 

Even in 2018, fifty years after King’s assassination, the country is timid about calling issues what they are, Ifill said. The prevalence of hate crimes has risen in every region of our country, Puerto Rico is still suffering after being decimated by Hurricane Maria and gun violence is rampant across the country, she added. 

She pointed out the slaying of nine black churchgoers in 2015 by Dylann Roof, and said racism became a national security vulnerability when Russians used social media to generate racial animosity in the 2016 election.

“Perhaps especially today, it’s crystal clear and evident that unless every citizen of this country undertakes their duty to fight for peace, equality and opportunity, democracy will fail,” Ifill said. “It will require every single one of us to become the democracy maintenance workers in our own way if the country is to be saved from the abyss over which we currently teeter.”

One way to push back on that is to be unafraid of telling the truth, she noted.

“It’s a tough thing, in some ways an awful thing, to have to call out the President of the United States when he makes racist remarks, even for someone like me.... But because of Dr. King’s work and courage, because of his honesty and commitment, because Dr. King paid the ultimate price for our failures to deal with the terrible scourge of racism in this country, I will do what feels awful and sounds harsh for the cause of justice,” Ifill said.  

In addition to Ifill, local and university leaders also took the opportunity to reflect on current political issues.

Price noted that the Commission on History and Memory has dug into the University’s racial history and mentioned that Duke will be opening a new research center to explore racial and ethnic disparities in clinical care.

“These conversations have never been more important, as we have witnessed the tragic violence in Charlottesville, the shocking revival of white supremacy, the demonstrations in downtown Durham and events at this very chapel,” Price said.

Durham Mayor Steve Schewel also explained that he understood the emotions that pushed people to damage the Lee statue and pull down the Confederate soldier statue in downtown Durham. He added that it’s a pushback against the white supremacy displayed in Charlottesville, Va. Schewel said he deeply feels the need for a peaceful way forward.

The city plans to examine all memorials and street names commemorating slavery and, for any it wants to remove, Durham will take the case before the North Carolina Historical Commission. 

Schewel drew applause from the audience when he commended Price for his “prompt and bold” removal of the Robert E. Lee statue in front of the chapel.

“My friends, it is a compelling moment to be gathered here at this chapel on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day when this chapel itself has become a site of conscience in our struggle for racial equality,” Schewel said.