What started as a remembrance by five local civil rights leaders praising the 50-year-old Unity Group and other local civil rights work turned into an enthusiastic sermon by the Reverend Paul McDaniel Monday night of what still needs to be done.
Mr. McDaniel, the last of the five speakers at the special Dr.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day town hall program at Orchard Knob Missionary Baptist Church on East Third Street, started out talking about what all the Unity Group had done.
But then he began mentioning such issues as the fact that no black-led financial institutions exist in Chattanooga anymore and there are few black-owned businesses downtown, and that caused him to stand up and, as he joked, start preaching.
“Black people have to get together if they are going to have power,” he said. “Somehow we’ve got to get in on it.”
He then added an optimistic and encouraging slant in closing by saying, “You’ve got to keep going. You can’t give up. Everybody can do something. Brighten your corner.”
When he was finished, he was given a standing ovation by the roughly 150-200 people who filled two-thirds of the large sanctuary at the church to hear him and the other speakers.
Earlier in his talk, he said the Unity Group was started after being called together by Bennie Harris, who became a city court judge and thought black men should be involved in the leadership structure of the community. Mr. McDaniel recalled that the group’s early work included helping get John P. Franklin elected as the first black city commissioner as well as helping plan an M.L. King birthday march at the suggestion of a white man, Leroy Griffith.
Besides Mr. McDaniel, a former county commissioner and retired pastor at Second Missionary Baptist Church, also offering remarks were former state Reps. Tommie Brown and JoAnne Favors, and local civil rights leaders Johnny Holloway and Sherman Matthews.
Mr. Matthews also talked about challenges ahead, despite the accomplishments of the Unity Group and other civil rights advocates. In fact, he went so far as to say the black community of Chattanooga is facing a crisis due to, as he called it, children having children.
“We’ve got to change what is happening to kids,” he said. “We’ve got to teach mothers to be mothers. We did better with kids when we had less.”
He also talked about the problems of urban gentrification, discussing how black people have been pushed out of their traditional neighborhoods near downtowns for the sake of money.
Mr. Matthews, the current chairman of the Unity Group, also criticized the local school system since the city schools were taken over by the county, saying that the city system was much more advanced.
“We need to go back to the system that works for all kids,” he said.
Like one or two other speakers, he also thought too many people want to run for mayor next year and that they should work together and find the best candidate instead of splitting the vote.
Former Rep. Favors also tried to point out some of the black problems. Referring to the phrase that it takes a village to raise a child, she said, “We don’t have a village.”
She also pointed out that well-meaning white people and others don’t completely understand the black perspective. As an example, she said that when someone says a person is from a broken home, she thinks that is actually true in a way for all black people.
“Our home was broken when we came over here,” she said.
She also pointed out that she had first met Mr. McDaniel years ago when she went to nursing school at Cleveland State Community College and he was on the staff.
Johnny Holloway, who discussed the contributions of all the black-improvement groups he has been involved with, added some humor when he congratulated the New York Times for endorsing two women for president – Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar.
“This country was created by men and they’ve been messing it up ever since,” he said of the paper’s possible motivation.
He also talked about being inspired to help make Chattanooga a better community for all people by working with the Rev. H.H. Wright, and being involved with the Operation PUSH group that tried to help attendance and attitude among students.
Like former Rep. Favors, former Rep. and UTC social work professor Dr. Tommie Brown, who had been a former secretary in the NAACP, also pointed out that the Unity Group was slow to let women in, but once they did, she enjoyed being involved.
“I learned more in the Unity Group because I got to apply it,” she said of taking part in some of the group’s projects. “It was like field work.”
Mayor Andy Berke welcomed the panelists before the discussion and praised their years of service for civil rights.
“One of the reasons I love to see this panel is it is a reminder of how many people have participated over such a long time in this fight,” he said.
He also said the MLK Day parade earlier in the day was one of the biggest he has seen locally.
Veteran Unity Group member Quenston Coleman also praised the locally based organization in his welcome, calling the group a voice within the center of the community.
“If you are a part of the Unity Group, you care about making Chattanooga better,” he said.
Other participants in the more-than-two-hour gathering were the Rev. Charlotte S.N.N. Williams, who gave the invocation; Eric Atkins of the Unity Group, who read scripture; and others.
Attendees also sang the traditional black anthems and civil rights songs, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and “We Shall Overcome.”