On the centennial anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, over 200,000 African-American men, women and children marched to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., to protest the racial and political injustices that pervaded their world.
Gathering around the Reflecting Pool before the memorial, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I Have A Dream” speech, where he shared his hope for a desegregated future and where he told people of color all through the nation that “now is the time to make real the promises of democracy…to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”
Fifty-four years later, hundreds of Tullahoma citizens — people of all colors — marched from the C.D. Stamps Community Center to city hall and back, led by Tullahoma’s We Care Committee President Paul Cooley, in order to keep King’s dream alive, and in remembrance of the vision that King possessed during his lifetime.
Joined by former Tennessee Senate candidate Mike Winton, Coffee County Mayor Gary Cordell, Tullahoma Mayor Lane Curlee, County Commissioner Rosemary Crabtree and members of the Tullahoma police and fire departments, citizens marched together, occasionally joining together in song, cheered on by waving and applauding passers-by up and down Jackson Street.
The annual march, which is hosted by the We Care Committee, has been ongoing for close to 10 years and is an important march for Cooley, who said that while Tullahoma is a great place to live and doesn’t share the same injustices that larger cities like Flint, Michigan, and Chicago face, there are still many things upon which Tullahoma can improve for all citizens.
“We know that Tullahoma’s a wonderful place to live, and we don’t have the same problems that big towns have, but that doesn’t mean that everybody is still treated fairly in all things,” he said.
Cooley also lamented what he felt was the inequality that still existed in Tullahoma.
“A lot of times people just fall through the cracks,” he said.
“It’s not like big places, but inequality still exists (here). Sometimes that’s because of the officials in the city, and sometimes it’s because people in the city don’t care.”
“So we’re just going to keep an awareness,” said Cooley.
When asked about police versus civilian violence in other towns, Cooley said that he was glad that things here were much smoother in regards to the cooperation and camaraderie between the police force and residents.
“I think there’s cooperation (between police and civilians), but I believe that if there’s any neglect—any injustice (in town) is very subtle,” he said, “It’s easy to hide.”
He said that marching with his fellow man was a way to remind people in town and anyone marching that they would like to be “part of a solution for disagreements…or misunderstandings that we have.”
Speaking to the crowd that gathered before the march, Cooley touched upon the reason for the march, stating that while King “gave us the reason to do it,” the march was more to remind everyone involved that “there are subtleties of indiscretions that happen in town that upset people.”
“We want to always be aware,” Cooley said.
Why they march
Cooley, who has been participating in the march for the last four years, said that the march has traditionally been more for remembrance of the life and legacy that King lived, but also to keep “everybody’s mind” on “the dream,” of a racially and politically just world for people of all races.
“If we don’t do anything (about injustice), then everything (justice) will go by the wayside,” said Cooley.
The march seemed to carry an even deeper, more special meaning for Cooley this year, however, with the divisiveness that many Americans have been feeling following the most recent presidential election, and the subsequent election of President-Elect Donald Trump.
“I think what’s going on in America today — the disagreements we’re having, some of the news of police brutality, high crime in cities — all those things are just a symptom of society itself,” Cooley said.
He added that hearing of those societal symptoms doesn’t necessarily mean that he and his fellow marchers were powerless to make change.
“That doesn’t mean that we can’t do something about that,” he said.
He said that he and anyone wanting to bring awareness to the racial injustice in the world could use King’s message to overcome the gap of understanding to help those in need.
“That was a part of what Martin Luther King spoke about. It wasn’t just a racial thing, it was a love thing,” he said.
“Think about your neighbor (and) help the police in finding the people that are treating other people wrong. It’s everybody’s part. It’s not just the police part.”
Cooley called on everyone in attendance to keep an eye on the horizon for any injustices they might see, and to speak up in times of struggle.
“We just need to make sure that everybody has an eye out for things that are not right and that people speak up.”
Tommy Williams, a laborer for the city’s public works department, has been an annual marcher for the past 10 years.
He started marching “ever since it started,” he said.
When asked why he chooses to march every year, Williams said that he marched “to keep Dr. King’s dream alive—for justice and equality for all mankind.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean that Williams believes Tullahoma has a racial problem, however.
“We don’t have a problem like that here in Tullahoma. We’ve got a loving community here, and I’m proud to be a part of it,” he said.
Williams said that the current political climate does have an impact on the importance of the march, but that he wanted people to channel that impact into making a difference in the community in a peaceable manner.
“I say one voice can make a difference, and so can one vote,” said Williams.
“Dr. King, he marched a peaceful demonstration, and that’s what we have to do, too. We all might have a difference of opinion, but we got to orchestrate that in a peaceful demonstration.”
Mike Winton, a former candidate for state senate against Senator Janice Bowling, said he saw the march as a continually important demonstration, particularly given the state of politics in the nation today.
“I think the nation itself has realized there have been things that we’ve allowed to happen that we didn’t think ever would, and now we see it, so I think people will start taking more action and more concern and become better educated about the public needs,” he said.
However, he said, just because the nation is going through a political crisis, Tullahoma seems to be immune from the same types of political pressures.
“Tullahoma’s pretty good. I think our whole area understands the climate better than some of our urban cities, and I’m always pleasured to live here.”