Kwanzaa in Winston-Salem opens with plea for justice

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Dr. Felecia Piggott-Long leads the processional for the first night of Kwanzaa, held Friday, Dec. 26, 2014. (Lauren Carroll/Journal)

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — The principle of umoja – or unity – took on a special meaning Friday night during the city’s first Kwanzaa celebration as the speakers urged the nearly 250 people gathered at the Winston-Salem Urban League downtown to fight against police brutality, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.

Friday’s was the first night of the citywide celebration of Kwanzaa, a weeklong African-American cultural celebration. The event was sponsored by the Winston-Salem Urban League and Triad Cultural Arts. Kwanzaa continues through Jan. 1 at various locations in the city.

The Rev. John Mendez, the event’s keynote speaker, urged the audience at the Urban League’s building on Fifth Street, to participate in demonstrations to protest the recent killings of unarmed black men in Missouri and New York City by white police officers.

“We have to march,” Mendez said. “”We shouldn’t be fearful when we go out onto the streets. The Constitution should protect us.”

Mendez mentioned Trayvon Martin, who was killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, Fla., in February 2012, and Michael Brown, who was killed in August during a confrontation with a white police officer in Ferguson. Mo.

“The level of racism is by definition a dehumanization of African American men,” said Mendez, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church and a longtime civil-rights activist. “Once you dehumanize a person, it is easy to kill them.”

Mendez called for psychological testing for all police officers, saying that some white officers nationwide are racist, deranged or “just angry.”

“Some of these officers should not have been on the police force in the first place,” Mendez said.

Before Mendez spoke, H. Don Williams, interim president of the Winston-Salem Urban League, told the crowd that the grand juries’ decisions in St Louis County, Mo, and New York City to not indict the officers who killed Brown and Eric Garner troubled many young people across the country.

Williams pointed to the national protests over Brown’s and Garner’s deaths and U.S. Department of Justice investigations of those cases.

“Millions of Americas have taken to the streets and social media to bring about an historic change,” Williams said. “We will not turn a blind eye to injustice.”

Mixed among the calls for action, were festive moments, led by The Otesha Creative Arts Ensemble, which drummed and danced. Many audience members danced in the aisles and clapped their hands along with the group/

The event’s organizers presented Kwanzaa unity awards to Mendez, Stephen Boyd, a religion professor at Wake Forest University, and to eight members of the Anderson High School Alumni who served as male mentors at Diggs-Latham Elementary School.

Boyd told the audience that he was pleased to receive the award amid a sad and sober time in the nation.

“We are struggling against wickedness in high places,” Boyd said, referring to the protests against police brutality. “We are in the face of a lion. It looks like it will win, but it will not win because umoja – our unity.”