For former Tallahassee, Fla., Mayor Andrew Gillum, the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. is in the power and urgency of change-making.
Students and community members crowded into the Chapel on Sunday afternoon for Duke’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration, entitled “The Power of the People.” Music and dancing accompanied multiple speeches, which drew connections between King’s legacy and the continuing struggle for equality and justice today.
Gillum’s keynote address argued that Americans share more similarities than differences and made a rousing call to action in the upcoming elections. Although he touched on many significant topics in the current Democratic primary elections, such as education, healthcare and climate change, Gillum stressed that unity was the most critical thing.
When talking about the importance of the right to vote, he quoted King’s “Give Us the Ballot” speech and frequently referred to the Voting Rights Act as a “promissory note”—one that’s due in November 2020.
“Our strongest tribute to the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King may be the ballot itself,” he said.
Gillum said his family played a big role in shaping his values. Although he was the first in his family to graduate high school and college, he credits his grandmother with teaching him to value wisdom. Before he’d leave for school, she’d tell him, “Mind your teachers, mind your lessons, and one day, bring that education home.”
That desire to “bring it home” guided him through the 2018 Florida gubernatorial election. When he won the Democratic primary, Gillum became the first candidate of color to lead a major party in Florida.
Despite beating the odds in the primary, Gillum lost the general election by half a percentage point to Republican Ron DeSantis. On election night, he said he regretted that he couldn’t “bring home” the victory to his supporters.
Even though he says the outcome still stings, he emphasized to the crowd in the Chapel that a narrow loss like his was not an excuse to stop fighting for change—it was a call to action.
“No one election decided by one-half of one percent should stop us from bringing home a better future for our children,” he said. “My parents told me that I had a duty to walk through every single doorway that the civil rights movement had kicked open for me. And on the way, I would need to open some doors for those who would come behind me.”
Gillum said that after losing the election, he vowed to register 1 million new voters in Florida before the 2020 presidential election. Instead of running for president, he started the voter outreach organization Bring It Home Florida in March 2019 to accomplish that goal and honor his commitment to delivering that promissory note of voting rights.
The issues on the ballot this year are too consequential for people to stay at home, he argued.
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“Decency, respect and Donald Trump are on the ballot,” he said.
Gillum closed his speech with a call to action.
“Duke, Durham and the broader community, I need y’all to work with me to bring it home in November 2020,” he said.
Kelly Aguirrechu, who attended the commemoration, worked for Gillum’s campaign in Florida and continues to support him even though she now lives in Raleigh. She came mostly to support Gillum and said she loves to hear him speak because he can bring people together and make everyone feel welcome.
“I feel like you can relate to him no matter where you come from, where you were born, how you were raised—he just makes everyone feel special,” she said.
In addition to Gillum’s keynote address, President Vincent Price, Durham Mayor Steve Schewel and Chancellor for Health Affairs Eugene Washington greeted the audience. Junior De’Ja Wood, vice president of Black Student Alliance, also spoke.
Duke senior Adrianna Williams, Gillum’s niece, introduced her uncle. She is the editor-in-chief of The Bridge, a joint campus publication that highlights women of color at both Duke and UNC.
Schewel focused on the current housing crisis in Durham. He asked that the audience keep close in their thoughts the 270 families that have been evacuated from the McDougald Terrace apartments.
The ceremony featured music from the John Brown Quartet and the Amandla Chorus, as well as special performances from the Collage Dance Company and spoken word from junior Resilience Williamson.
Editor's Note: This article has been updated to add that Adrianna Williams introduced Gillum.