The keynote address at Monday’s Martin Luther King celebration will be delivered by Gary R. Wade, chief justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court. In addition to discussing King’s life, Wade will touch on legal milestones such as the Dred Scott decision, the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment.
Wade attended Sevier County High School and was mayor of Sevierville from 1977 to 1987. He served on the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals before joining the Supreme Court in 2006. What follows is an edited interview.
In terms of Martin Luther King’s legacy, what do you think has been achieved, and what remains to be achieved?
What he did, laying the groundwork for the civil rights act and adopting Gandhi’s passive, nonviolent protest methods, was very effective. As a spiritual leader, he was easily embraced by mainstream Americans. He was helpful in achieving the goals of African Americans in the United States through legislation.
That is not to say, however, that there aren’t still problems to address. Obviously we continue to be in a period of evolution. That is perhaps the ultimate theme of what I might have to say on Monday. Much has been accomplished, but there’s more to be done.
What memories do you have of Dr. King?
I can remember the day of his assassination. As you may or may not be aware, he was a controversial figure at the time. There were remnants of racism. Not everyone saw Dr. King as a hero, and obviously his mission in life inflamed many. Otherwise he wouldn’t have become a martyr to the cause. I’ve had some personal experience with people who were directly involved in the aftermath of the King assassination. I was 39 when I came to the Court of Criminal Appeals.
One of the judges on the court was from Memphis, (Robert K.) “Bussy” Dwyer. Bussy was one of two individuals chosen to prosecute James Earl Ray after the murders in Memphis. Judge James Beasley Sr. was the other. I sat on a panel of the Court of Criminal Appeals with Judge Dwyer many times, and with Judge Beasley on at least two occasions.
Bussy told me late in his life that the proudest moment of his life was when they prepared the case, it came to trial, and James Earl Ray decided to enter a plea of guilty to his charge.
How do think Dr. King’s message resonates in Sevier County today?
I think younger people take many of the things that were accomplished in the 1960s for granted today. It’s just a different time, a different era. We have an African-American president. Who would have ever thought about that possibility during the ’50s, when I was a young man, and the ’60s, when I began to be aware of the issues related to race?
One remembrance I have from high school is that we had a principal by the name of Jack Ogle, who was the toughest guy in school. The Knoxville media came to Sevier County when we announced that integration would begin in the 1963-64 school year. He simply told the media that there would be no problems at the school with integration. And I never saw a single incident related to race during the three years I spent in high school in an integrated system.
The only incident that I can remember is one that I’m very proud of. Principal Ogle and our head (football) coach Tom Bass preseason-scheduled a game at Kingston High School, which had not yet integrated during that school year, the ‘63-’64 year.
We traveled by bus over to Kingston. The coaches got off the bus, and after about 30 minutes, came back and announced that there would be no scrimmage. The Kingston school authorities had told them that we could only scrimmage in the event we left our two African-Americans on the bus. We unanimously agreed that we should not play a team that was not willing to play all of us. A very proud moment for Sevier County, I think.