Sixty years ago this month, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Chattanooga.
It was the night of Dec. 30, 1960. Forbidden from speaking at Howard High by our school board, King met an audience of at least 2,500 at the Memorial Auditorium, according to historians, where he spoke for nearly an hour as part of the NAACP’s Emancipation Day Observance.
“Tickets were sold for $1.50 apiece to the first 200 people,” wrote the excellent John Shearer in the Chattanoogan.
King had come here before; in 1953, he interviewed to be pastor at First Baptist on East 8th Street. He was 24. And too young, church leaders decided, to be a minister.
When he returned in the winter of 1960, the city was roiling.
Howard students had staged sit-ins downtown just months earlier. Whites howled in response. Bombs exploded in Black neighborhoods.
Our city used fire hoses to disperse young protesters, according to Jessie Harris’s outstanding “Unfamiliar Streets: The Chattanooga Sit-ins, the Local Press and the Concern for Civilities,” while the local press sided, both subtly and overtly, with white traditionalism.
“The Chattanooga newspapers at the time failed to see the necessity of the sit-in demonstrations and could not forgive the commotion they caused,” Harris wrote.
Just three years prior, an effigy threatening “All NAACP bus riding n——-” had been hung on the Walnut St. Bridge, according to Samuel Roderick Jackson’s thorough “An Unquenchable Flame: The Spirit of Protest and the Sit-in Movement in Chattanooga, Tennessee.”
That winter night in Chattanooga, King gave a speech called “The Negro and The American Dream.”
“If America is to remain a first-class nation, she no longer can have second-class citizens,” he said, according to Jackson.
Do not settle for “token integration because it is nothing more than token democracy,” he declared.
That was 60 years ago.
Today, on the eve of 2021, our city would look very different to Dr. King.
And very much the same.
A segregated downtown that is white and getting whiter.
A segregated system of power that puts tremendous and urgent energy prioritizing white monied interests while looking past the health and well-being of Black and brown neighborhoods.
A pervasive spirit of wait-wait gradualism.
A Confederate statue still standing watch over the county courthouse.
White county officers beating a Black man for walking the wrong way down the road.
I wonder what King would say if he could return today.
Why don’t we invite him?
Here is my idea.
I’m going to make 2021 the Year of Reading MLK. His speeches. Sermons. Daily or weekly or monthly.
I’d love for you to join me.
I’m inviting Chamber of Commerce leaders.
And our city’s mayoral candidates, especially the white ones.
And the 19 business leaders — from UNUM to PlayCore to U.S. Xpress to Kenco — who took out a full-page ad this summer promising solidarity and racial equality.
“We’re committed to taking action,” their ad said.
Would you join us?
Churches and Sunday schools. Let’s get to know the real Dr. King.
Let’s invite him back to our city by reading his sermons and speeches.
We already have a core group of willing Chattanoogans:
Kelly and Ted Alling said yes.
Tresa and Franklin McCallie said yes.
“I would especially consent to doing this,” said Dr. Everlena Holmes. “I’m part of the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama and had the pleasure of meeting Dr. King on several occasions.”
“I’m excited,” said County Commissioner David Sharpe.
If you’re interested, email me. I’ll curate a bi-weekly list of speeches and sermons, all free online. Read at your own pace. (Daily, weekly. Later, we could add other Black voices.)
This isn’t a book club or New Year’s resolution. Nor is it a substitute for committed action.
It is, though, a devotional.
We are wanting to draw closer to a man grounded with so much spiritual depth. A man who responded to the troubles of his day with generous love and fierce activism. A man who has been sanitized by white America. A man who almost became a Chattanoogan. A man our school board attempted to silence.
“The Americans who are breaking down racial barriers may be God’s instruments to democracy and may save their country,” King said that Chattanooga night, according to Jackson.
Sixty years later, we still have that urgent opportunity before us.
David Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.