'Dream' commemoration by Orchard Knob Elementary School offers hope, reminders (with video)

'Dream' commemoration by Orchard Knob Elementary School offers hope, reminders (with video)

August 29th, 2013 by Alex Green in Local Regional News

Melea Taylor, at podium, and Marcus Banks stand in front of fourth and fifth graders from Orchard Knob Elementary School during a reading of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream Speech," at the base of the New York Peace Monument, at Point Park on Wednesday. The event was held in remembrance of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

Photo by C. B. Schmelter/Times Free Press.

Orchard Knob Elementary School fifth grader Chantal Nizigiyimana holds an American flag on the steps of the New York Peace Monument at Point Park on Wednesday.

Photo by C. B. Schmelter/Times Free Press.

Struggle.

Civil War cannons sat yards from smiling Orchard Knob Elementary School fourth- and fifth-graders who came up to Lookout Mountain's Point Park on Wednesday to mark the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.

Brother Ron Fender, a Chattanooga-based Gregorian monk, gestured with a handheld American flag toward Chattanooga below.

"In those streets down there, there's a lot of work to do," he said.

Orchard Knob Principal Lafrederick Thirkill spoke briefly and led participants in singing "We Shall Overcome."

"The students in our building," he said, "They represent the dream."

The Orchard Knob classes are almost all black. They are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of black Americans who marched, sat at lunch counters, prayed and sang in a nonviolent revolution that changed the nation's attitudes about race.

"They won't even be able to understand the impact of [the commemoration] on their life," he said.

The impact was that things started getting better in the South after the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, said James Mapp, NAACP Chattanooga president, before the event.

He knows because he was there. It was the event that put King on the nation's radar.

"[King] was just a speaker at the time," Mapp said. "But his delivery took hold."

Mapp said that in the years immediately after the march, Chattanooga saw steady improvements in race relations.

"Chattanooga was not like most cities in the South," he said.

But Mapp said progress peaked in the 1980s, and since then the city's race relations have declined. He said that getting rid of black teachers, black police officers and black schools in Chattanooga has taken a heavy toll on the black community.

"The young people are angry," he said. That's why they're acting out in violence, tearing apart already-broken communities, why black-on-black crime is pervasive in the city.

"When people turn on themselves, as these young people have, the next thing they turn on is their community," Mapp said. "We're destroying ourselves from within."

Struggle. King used the word twice in the "Dream" speech.

"With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together ..."

But he used the word "dream" 11 times.

"I have a dream today!" he said.

And 50 years after those words, Chattanoogans still see it, still can almost touch it.

"We're there, but we're still not there," Joyce Terrell said after the Lookout Mountain commemoration. She was the first black student to enter Virginia public schools and now lives in Chattanooga.

There's still racism, she said, and she expects an element will live on after her lifetime.

But Fender said the real enemy is "greed and brutality," both human traits.

"We white guys don't own that," he said. "There will always be racism or classism or whatever -ism we use to define us."

But 9-year-old Jumasha Pulliam doesn't see race questions in the same way as previous generations.

She called King "a brave man" who considered himself the same as everyone else.

"We should follow his dream," Jumasha said.

And to her, that means when "all boys and girls gather around and have fun and do what's right."

Contact staff writer Alex Green at agreen@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6731.