Looking to the 'Promise Land'
With a jubilant march and a program of music, dance and reflection, Sevier Countians on Monday remembered Martin Luther King Jr. during the national holiday commemorating the civil rights pioneer.
Before the march, about 100 people gathered in the parking lot of First Baptist Church. Among them was Betty McMahan, whose son, the late Joseph McMahan, organized Sevier County's first King celebration in 2006.
"It's a great thing for Sevier County," McMahan said of the celebration. "It helps us to realize the things Martin Luther King stood for, not only for the black race but for the human race." McMahan carried a sign memorializing civil rights martyrs.
Kristie Gutierrez of Boyds Creek Church of God helped organize church members. "We march every year," she said of the event. "It brings unity to the area."
After a prayer by Bishop Zack Flack, senior pastor of Boyds Creek Church of God, the group marched down Court Street toward the courthouse. They were led by officials including Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Gary L. Wade, Sevierville Mayor Bryan Atchley and Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters.
"MLK, it's your day," the marchers chanted. "The dream you had is here to stay." They also chanted about Rosa Parks, and they sang "We're Marching Up to Zion."
After the march, the program remembering King began in the church's sanctuary. First was a film about King's "I Have a Dream" speech. Then opening remarks were made by Judge Dwight Stokes of General Sessions Court, who chairs the committee that organizes the celebration.
Waters and Atchley also spoke, as did Rev. Dan Spencer, pastor of First Baptist Church. "This is a day that should bring us all together to recognize Dr. King and what he did for civil rights," Waters said.
"Let's love each other," Atchley said, "second only to our love for our lord Jesus Christ."
Regina Pate sang a soaring version of the Negro National Anthem, and a team from Boyds Creek Church of God performed praise dance. Only the dancers' white-gloved hands, illuminated by black lights, could be seen.
Wade delivered the keynote address, which he began with reflections on the desegregation of Sevier County schools in the 1960s.
Then he spoke on judicial and legal history, including the Supreme Court's 1857 Dred Scott decision declaring African-Americans non-citizens. He also described the court's ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which upheld racial segregation.
"Neither shed favorable light on the Supreme Court," said Wade of the decisions.
Wade concluded by describing events in King's life, including the "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech King delivered on April 3, 1968, the day before he was assassinated.
Wade read King's words: "We, as a people, will get to the promised land."