Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / People take part in a memorial march along M.L. King Boulevard on Monday, Jan. 20, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn. The memorial march was part of the Unity Group of Chattanooga's 50th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Week celebration

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Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Chattanooga

More than 150 people filled the pews of Orchard Knob Missionary Baptist Church on Monday night to hear decades of experience about the front line of the fight for justice from the local legends who stood up for their rights.

The town hall featured Tommie Brown, the first black woman elected as state representative of the 28th Legislative District; Joanne Favors, former state representative and the first black woman elected to the Hamilton County Commission; Johnny Holloway, who led the PUSH for Excellence program to improve local education; Sherman Matthews, chairman of the Unity Group; and the Rev. Paul McDaniel, NAACP leader and former county commissioner who fought in the Supreme Court for pastors to be able to serve in local office.

The group discussed the accomplishments of the civil rights movement in Chattanooga and the ongoing struggles for equality, including education, youth engagement and gentrification.

With creeping gentrification in black neighborhoods, black people are again being treated like property, like they were during times of slavery, Matthews said. Investors are more concerned about profits than people, he said.

(MORE: How one Chattanooga boys school pays tribute to King's legacy)

"All across this country, we have been pushed out of our neighborhoods," Matthews said. "We have been removed from our neighborhoods for the sake of money. ... Rather than build a community, rather than enhance a community, rather than help the people there, we just push them out."

There are no black-controlled financial institutions in Chattanooga to serve the community, McDaniel said. There is an obligation for people to look out for one another.

"We have a responsibility to all of the citizens, to the haves and the have-nots, as well," he said. "We have a responsibility to them. The Bible says so."

The panel praised the work of the Unity Group, which for 50 years organized the weeklong celebration honoring Martin Luther King Jr. Together, the group has fought for greater representation and improving the black community in Chattanooga, Favors said.

"The work that was done by the Unity Group meeting, it can't be described because every aspect of our lives have been influenced by discussions and negotiations by members of Unity Group meetings," she said.

(MORE: Martin Luther King holiday: Faith, politics mix this holiday)

McDaniel said the Unity Group is unique because it has never had national affiliations or obligations, giving it the ability to work for the community how they see fit. The group must continue to advocate and stay united, McDaniel said.

"In the black community, we have the responsibility for our own history," he said. "We shouldn't have to depend on somebody else to share our history."

Holloway praised the work of the church in Chattanooga, calling it the only institution that supported the black community. He noted the role the Black Panther party played in feeding people and serving others with the sickle cell anemia program.

The evening town hall was the end of a week of events in honor of King and the second event on Monday honoring the civil rights leader. Events were also held nationally in recognition of King's work.

Earlier that afternoon, a crowd of several hundred people marched east from the Federal Court building along the quickly gentrifying M.L. King Boulevard to Mt. Olivet Baptist Church. The annual parade featured historically black sororities and fraternities, civic groups, local clergy, Hamilton County teachers and a troop of Girl Scouts.

The marchers chanted for Black Lives Matter and welcoming immigrants, as well as critiques of police brutality.

(MORE: King Day in South Carolina draws 2020 presidential hopefuls)

D'Wauna Young Mann, president of the local graduate chapter of Zeta Phi Beta, said the march was doubly important this year. Not only was it the 50th anniversary of the Martin Luther King Jr. Week in Chattanooga, but the 100th anniversary of the sorority. Previous generations of Zeta Phi Beta sisters likely marched alongside King during the civil rights movement, Mann said.

"There were marches on days like this, and in temperatures like this," Mann said. "... They had to work for issues of equality and rights like Dr. King did."

Dwight Smith, political action chair of the local chapter of the NAACP, said issues of inequity and police brutality continue to divide the city. People are losing confidence and need to get involved in civil action to see change, he said.

From the reporter

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