MLK Day: Miller recalls segregation
Jamesena Miller remembers a different Sevier County.
“I lived in Sevier County when it was completely segregated,” she said. “As a teen, when we wanted to go to the movies, we had to sit upstairs.” To get food at a restaurant, she recalled, African-Americans had to go to the back door.
“I lived through those periods of feeling less than human,” said Miller, who retired about 13 years ago as director of food services at the University of Tennessee. “If you can’t sit with other people, you ask, ‘What’s wrong with me?’”
Miller is treasurer of the Sevier County Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Committee. Since 2006, the committee has organized an annual tribute to the civil rights pioneer, who was assassinated April 4, 1968.
This year’s Martin Luther King celebration takes place on Monday, Jan. 21. It will begin at 10 a.m., when participants gather in the parking lot of First Baptist Church, 317 Parkway.
They will march to the courthouse and back “as a symbol of Martin Luther King’s nonviolent, peaceful marching,” said Miller.
“We have signs, and we sing, and we wave at people along the way,” said Bishop Zack Flack, senior pastor of Boyds Creek Church of God.
The celebration program begins inside the church at 11:15 p.m. The keynote address will be given by Gary R. Wade, chief justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court.
Opening remarks will be delivered by Judge Dwight Stokes of General Sessions Court; he chairs the celebration committee. His comments will be followed by messages of welcome from Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters, Sevierville Mayor Bryan Atchley and the church’s Rev. Dan Spencer.
Musical performers include soloist Regina Pate, the Martin Luther King Community Choir and the Sevier County High School Concert Choir. Praise dance will be presented by groups from Boyds Creek Church of God and Gumstand Baptist Church, and awards will be given to winners of the student poster contest.
The program will conclude with the singing of “We Shall Overcome” and “Let There Be Peace on Earth.”
“It’s a wonderful occasion,” said Flack. “It’s enriching and very informative. It’s something you can grow by.”
“We’ve tried to make a successful event for the county, one the county can be proud of,” said Miller.
Sevier County’s Martin Luther King celebration was the idea of the late Joseph McMahan, a plant pathologist and teacher. He died of a brain tumor in 2010 at age 49.
“He was a pioneer,” said Flack of McMahan, who founded the celebration commission. “He was a mentor. He was a model. He worked very hard and spent many hours on this, when he didn’t feel well. He was very giving of himself.”
“We for years had not celebrated Martin Luther King Day in Sevier County,” said Miller. McMahan “had to travel to Jefferson City, Dandridge, to celebrate. He had the brainstorm to ask the county to recognize the day, so we could have a local celebration.”
The first celebration took place at the courthouse — “out on the lawn,” Miller recalled. “The next year it was extremely cold. The wind was blowing. It was a borderline disaster.”
The program moved inside First Baptist Church, where it has been held since. “It’s very important for the church to honor Dr. King, and to be able to participate with our community as it honors his life and legacy,” said Clark Byrum, the church’s business manager.
In the years since the first King program, the celebration committee has sought to involve children, with activities such as a poster and essay contest. “Students have been very responsive,” said Carroll McMahan, the committee’s vice chairman. “At least 200 participate every year.”
For kids, the contest is “a way of continuing the legacy and letting them learn about the civil rights era,” Miller said.
The committee also reaches out to very young children with a series of book readings for preschoolers, noted McMahan, who is special projects facilitator with the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce. Along with talks and discussions for adults, the book readings are held in the days leading up to the Monday celebration.
Last week, preschool book readings were hosted by celebration committee members including Stokes and Robin Cogdill, assistant system director with the Sevier County Public Library System.
Young people will participate in the celebration program as singers in the Sevier County High School Concert Choir. It is directed by Nathan Rhea.
“I think it’s good for the kids to be involved,” said Rhea, who also directs the Martin Luther King Community Choir. “It’s community service, and it’s extra credit for class. It’s a good opportunity for them to sing in front of a different group of people.”
Some songs are performed every year at the celebration, Rhea noted, including “We Shall Overcome.”
“It’s a wonderful piece,” he said. “I have always loved that song, because it’s a spiritual.”
Rhea believes “We Shall Overcome” is a song for all races. “I think it’s talking about humanity in general. I wish we, as a nation, could overcome.”
Before Monday’s march, a prayer will be delivered by Flack. A regular participant in the yearly celebration, he remembers Martin Luther King.
“I was moved by the compassion he had for people, and his commitment, and his accountability in promoting the civil rights movement,” Flack said. “Even though death hung over his head, in spite of being told, ‘You are going to be killed’ — that didn’t bother him, because he had a purpose in mind, and he achieved it.”
Flack believes that King’s message of racial understanding still resonates. “What affects one people, one group, affects us all, because we’re all people in the sight of God,” Flack said. “The only race, as far as I am concerned, is the human race.”
Even so, “the dream has not been completed,” said Flack, evoking King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. “I don’t think we should sit down and become complacent. I don’t care how well a job is done, or how much you have achieved in life. There’s always more you can learn.”
Like Miller, Flack, a Knoxville native, remembers segregation. “I never got bitter about it, and I never hated people because of it,” he said. “That’s the way I was reared. It was instilled in me to love people.”
Segregation was “a season,” Flack said. “This is a different season, a different time of life. We must learn to relate to one another in the time in which we now live.”
Miller sees hope in King’s message. “We may not have achieved everything he spoke about and dreamed about, but the legacy lives on, and it’s up to us individually to take up the mantle and pass it on,” she said.
“That’s what I see the day doing,” Miller added, referring to Monday’s celebration. “It’s about continuing to have the hope that we’ll truly become a more perfect union.”
The song “We Shall Overcome” is “so important,” Miller said. “It may not be in my lifetime, but we are going to overcome. We’re overcomers.”