On Nov. 2, 1983, Ronald Reagan signed a holiday into law. That holiday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, represents a reflection on civil rights in the United States. King, who would have turned 85 this year, and his enduring message are being honored Monday.
King established himself as an American icon advocating for peaceful protest against systems of privilege and inequality.
He stood against corporate greed and discrimination. He stood alongside the classes that struggled and the workers who were underpaid.
In the midst of income inequality, the need for King’s causes persists. He was a pastor, humanitarian and activist.
King died April 4,1968, in Memphis, when he was shot on the balcony of Lorraine Motel after speaking on behalf of sanitation workers. King’s high-profile involvement in civil rights sheds light on a dim avenue of American history. Government offices and schools will be closed in recognition of the federal holiday. This includes the post office and libraries. Some retail outlets will have different hours. Jellico hosted its first memorial celebration for the holiday in 2009 with a parade. There will be no parade this year.
A year later, Jellico elected its first black member of the Jellico City Council, Venita “Cissco” Johnson. She also received the most votes, establishing her as the vice mayor. Johnson declined to comment on Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year.
Jerry Sharp, the curator of the Campbell County Historical Society said it was difficult some years to get the historical society to close on the holiday.
“I wish we had more [artifacts]. I’m not knocking our county, but blacks haven’t gotten much credit here,” he said. “I remember the LaFollette Colored High School. It was a shame when it had to close.”
The school opened in 1932 with 27 students in grades K-12. The school closed in 1965 “because it was in a bad shape and had rats,” said Sharp. At the first Louie Bluie Music & Arts Festival in 2007, celebrating the legacy of local black jazz musician Howard Armstrong, Sharp participated in a reunion for graduates of the school.
“I was one of the folks who got up, and I was telling them I was so proud of them. Ninety percent of them there had a high school education and 40 to 50 percent had a college education,” he said.
Sharp described some of the graduates as lawyers and doctors.
“It was hard for them back then,” he said.
There is little to no coverage of historical black affairs in the Press archives, including Martin Luther King Jr. during his stay in Memphis or his assassination.
How can the lack of coverage best be remedied for future generations? Marcus Jones, the history teacher at the Christian Academy of Campbell County, said he’ll be educating students about King.
“I’ll be conducting a presentation on Friday, discussing who Martin Luther King Jr. was and his accomplishments,” he said. “I’ll be explaining to the kids why they won’t be in school Monday.”
Later in the year, Jones will be further discussing King’s influence, he said.
Diversity in Campbell County
Diversity is lacking in Campbell County. The 2010 Census recorded the population as being 97.7 percent white. In a population of 40,716, only 125 people – 0.31 percent – were black, an increase of five people since the Census statistics of 2000. Statewide statistics reveal a broader diversity, with nearly a fifth of Tennessee’s population being black. The most sensitive discussion regarding race relations in the South concerns the Confederate Flag. The flag is for many a symbol of Southern pride and heritage — for many others, an emblem of bigotry.
Fans of the LaFollette Press Facebook page were asked for their thoughts on the symbolism behind the Confederate Flag. Ann Caldwell Browning is the history teacher at Campbell County High School.
“The Confederate flag represented a separate nation from the USA,” she said. “Yes, it’s heritage; however, it remains controversial due to its use as a tool of terror during the Civil Rights Movement.”
David Marlow identified himself as a Jacksboro native.
“It’s a racist symbol and should not be used. Anyone who says that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery needs to read a few history books,” he said.
Amanda Walker Rager identified as a Lake City native. She said the flag has multiple meanings.
“Just like everything else in today’s modern society, it is controversial because someone is going to be offended — much like with religion being offensive to some and homosexuality to others. Over the history since the Civil War, I think some groups of people use it as an excuse for ‘Southern legacy,’ but really they use it to be racist. Outside of Campbell County and East Tennessee, there is a much bigger world that sees less racism and equality. It took me offending my friends to see the flag represents hate to them and a time the United States should never revisit. While I am proud of where I come from, I would never fly the flag to represent my heritage. I don’t want to be known as a racist and that is what it has come to represent,” she said.
Of the comments posted on the Press page, half of them cited heritage or pride as the meaning of the Confederate flag.
Some of today’s East Tennessean attitudes toward the flag as a symbol of family heritage tend to conflict with the fact that the Confederate cause in East Tennessee was largely opposed. Of 1,059 votes cast in Campbell County, only 59 were in favor of secession from the Union, preceding the Civil War.
East Tennessee opposed secession as well, unlike Middle and West Tennessee. The region’s history can be traced to a vocal stance against slavery, setting it apart from the mindset of the Confederacy.
Religious columnist Dr. Bill Horner said he is pleased to see numerous barriers being broken down.
“Our churches still tend to be either predominately white or black because birds of a feather tend to flock together,” he said. “It is not uncommon now to see a mix of colors in Sunday morning worship, particularly in larger cities, but occasionally even here in LaFollette as well.”
Horner also said his own journey on the issue of race relations included some of the standard prejudices of the culture around him during the 1960s.
“But since then, being around others who are different from me in color or culture has helped change my attitude to see them as individuals,” he said.
When Horner pastored in Bristol, he said the black count could be tallied on one hand. Whereas in Princess Anne, Md., the demographic mix was 50-50 black and white.
“Often, I found myself in the minority. It was a new and healthy experience in which it was easy at times to forget that those around me were a different color.”
The end of King’s last speech remains especially profound.
“We’ve got some difficult days ahead,” he said on April 3, 1968. “But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man.”