One strong memory of his childhood was seeing a photograph of the body of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old who was tortured and murdered for “insulting” a white woman in Money, Miss, about 100 miles northeast of Vicksburg. Duke was 11 then, just three years younger than Emmett.
“It was a frightful thing,” he says. “It’s as if they were trying to say: ‘Nigger, stay in your place.’ ”
The conviction that politics is for other people proved hard to shake. Duke’s father, who upon separating from Duke’s mother brought the baby boy to live with a grandmother, apparently never considered trying to vote.
“You couldn’t vote in Mississippi in those days,” Duke says. “Most of it was survival. When I was a young kid, we wouldn’t even think of voting.”
In 1962, the father paid his son’s way to North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (A&T), a historically black college in Greensboro.
Duke arrived just two years after four A&T students sat down at a local Woolworths counter and asked to be served. The protest – which grew to hundreds of people and lasted six months – electrified nearby colleges and launched other civil rights protests across the Old South.
“It was an exciting time,” says Duke, who says he knew the four activists – Ezell Blair Jr. (now Jibreel Khazan), David Richmond, Joseph McNeil, and Franklin McCain at the university. Still, he wasn’t moved to cast a vote. That, he now says, was a mistake.