IF YOU GO
What: Unity Group prayer vigil
When: 4 p.m. today
Where: Eastdale Village Community Church, 1403 Tunnel Blvd.
Don't go downtown. Don't engage.
That was the message that famed national civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson delivered to a crowd at Olivet Baptist Church on Friday night as the city prepares for a neo-Nazi rally on the courthouse steps today.
"Let them clap with one hand," Jackson said to cheers from the crowd of more than 150.
Jackson said the National Socialist Movement group coming to Chattanooga intends to engage in and provoke violence, and that is why protesters shouldn't march or confront the group that is racist and anti-Semitic.
"We stay away not because we are scared but because we are wise," he said.
The neo-Nazi rally is just another example of a "toxic wind" of fear and repression blowing through the country, Jackson said.
He told the crowd they needed to direct their energies not at refuting the neo-Nazi ideology of hate, but toward ending joblessness, powerlessness, crime and drug addiction.
He said the same thing earlier Friday when he met with Times Free Press editors and reporters.
"It would be unwise to confront a phantom and let them take the energy of our social justice movement away," he said.
Jackson told the crowd Friday that although the civil rights movement accomplished much, there are still serious battles to be won. Several days ago the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Michigan's constitutional ban on affirmative action in higher education. Blacks are still vastly under-represented in the business world, he said.
"Banks are doing well, but our neighborhoods are in trouble. ... We are free but not equal," he said.
He said everyone in the room should be concerned about cuts to Medicare, threats to big businesses like Volkswagen and expanded gun legislation like a bill signed into law this week in Georgia. High school seniors need to get their diplomas and a voter registration cards, he said.
"Guns are not our hope," he shouted from the pulpit. "There is no future in violence."
"Speak the truth," the crowd yelled back.
Then he began a sing song with the crowd.
"It gets dark sometimes," he said.
"Love is," he said.
"Love is," the crowd repeated.
"Our light," they echoed back.
The pianist played Walter Hawkins' "A Wonderful Change," but instead of asking people to come for salvation he asked anyone who wasn't registered to vote to come forward.
The meager crowd that greeted Jackson and a group of white and black pastors was loud and excited, but many seats in the church were empty. No white politicians, including Mayor Andy Berke, were present.
Pam and Gary Watkins were among whites attending the event.
"We came because they support everything we stand for," the couple said about the rally organized by the Rev. Kevin Adams, Olivet pastor. "We don't see color. We're all just people."
Karen Claypool, another white who attended the peace rally, said Jackson's words were inspirational and that he made key points.
Several of her friends had talked about creating a human fence to keep the Nazis from coming to the courthouse. So she said she was glad Jackson encouraged everyone to stay away from the action. She will start encouraging people to go to the Jazzanooga festival at the Bessie Smith Hall instead.
"There is diversity in Chattanooga, and I am one that appreciated that diversity," she said.
Several members of Concerned Citizens for Justice, Unity Group, black ministers and Nation of Islam representatives also supported the Olivet event with their attendance.
The group will host a prayer vigil at 4 p.m. today at Eastdale Village Community Church to provide Chattanooga residents with an alternative event to the neo-Nazi rally.
Quenston Coleman, vice president of the Chattanooga Unity Group, said Jackson's presence in the city was important and he encouraged everyone to attend today's prayer vigil.
"We will not sacrifice our future or the integrity of our community by not expressing our collective voices concerning this event," Sherman Matthews, president of the Unity Group, said in a statement.
Contact staff writer Joan Garrett McClane at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6601.
Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at email@example.com or 423-757-6431.
Yolanda Putman has been a reporter at the Times Free Press for 11 years. She covers housing and previously covered education and crime. Yolanda is a Chattanooga native who has a master’s degree in communication from the University of Tennessee and a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Alabama State University. She previously worked at the Lima (Ohio) News. She enjoys running, reading and writing and is the mother of one son, Tyreese. She has also ...