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Members of the Howard School marching band walk past a mural of Martin Luther King Jr. while lining up for a memorial parade and march along M.L. King Boulevard on Monday, Jan. 15, 2018 in Chattanooga, Tenn. The memorial parade and march was part of the Unity Group of Chattanooga's 48th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Week celebration, which began on Jan. 8th and ended on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
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In 1969, one year after Martin Luther King was assassinated, the Hon. Bennie Harris — our city's first African-American city court judge — called together a group of local black men.

Among them? The Rev. Paul McDaniel, who was just beginning his storied career at Second Missionary Baptist Church.

The gathering would change Chattanooga for decades to come.

Harris had a vision.

"We should unify all these groups doing things in the community for the well-being of the community," McDaniels remembers.

Their early goals? Encourage black men to run for office. Unify disparate community groups. Push for economic power.

"I was elected leader," McDaniel said.

And the Unity Group was born.

Since 1969, the Unity Group has served this city with prophetic vision, calling out the need for black political power, economic justice and the revolutionary belief of unifying reconciliation.

"First, you've got to get to know each other better," said McDaniel. "You start realizing folks are like you. They have common needs. Hurts like you have. Desires like you have."

In 1971, the group was tested. The popular singer Wilson Pickett refused to play Memorial Auditorium; when no refunds were given, dissatisfied concertgoers turn to vandalism. Police arrived; things got worse.

"A riot," McDaniel said.

Firebombs. Curfews. Some 2,000 National Guardsman. More than 300 arrests. The New York Times sent a reporter.

"Negro is killed on fourth night of violence in Chattanooga," the headline read.

This was not solely about Wilson Pickett; frustration was rampant. Dr. King would called riots "the language of the unheard." Two years prior, some 350 black Chattanoogans marched on City Hall— "to demonstrate our dissatisfaction, to dramatize our discontent," black leader C.B. Robinson told the crowd.

During the riot, white leaders reached out to the Unity Group.

"That was the first time we really got involved in the life of the community," said McDaniel. "We somewhat became a voice for the black community."

In years to come, the Unity Group would focus on voter registration, political involvement — women and men — and economic integration. ("We had more black businesses then than we do now," McDaniel said.) Forms held, history taught, cemeteries decorated.

In 1970, seeds were sown that created its signature event.

The Rev. Leroy Griffith — the white, longtime minister of Renaissance Presbyterian — led his church in honoring the late Dr. King with a memorial event.

The next year, Griffith petitioned the city commission to declare an official M.L. King Day.

The commission said no.

Soon after, 50 black Chattanoogans gathered at the Community Action Agency for an impromptu memorial service.

Then, Griffith went to the Unity Group: let's create a memorial-birthday M.L. King parade.

They sold $1 bumper stickers. Went on the radio. Invited everyone.

"Every organization in town and all the churches," Griffith said. "We even invited — the Grand Dragon of the Klan."

The Klan? Why?

"That was the spirit of reconciliation Martin Luther King was all about," he said.

(Griffith said the Klan leader was also a used furniture salesman. "Most of his customers were black and did not know he was a Grand Dragon," Griffith said.)

On January 15, 1972, thousands came out for the first M.L. King parade. Marching bands. Helium birthday balloons. Politicians in cars.

"Thousands of Chattanooga's black community and a lesser-number of whites marched and stood in bone-rattling cold Saturday," wrote Bill Casteel of the Chattanooga Times.

McDaniel spoke to the crowd of Dr. King's dream.

"If that dream is to become a reality and not a nightmare for Chattanooga to overcome, we must be dedicated to building bridges over troubled waters," he said.

As Chattanooga enters a new decade, we must pause and honor what that group began in 1970.

Fifty years of the Unity Group.

Fifty years of honoring M.L. King.

Fifty years of conscientious bridge-building.

Today, the M.L. King march is now enveloped in a week-long celebration. (This year's — "The Trumpet of Conscience: Why We Can't Wait" — includes a prayer breakfast with the powerful Dr. Catherine Meeks.)

"One of the best in the nation," said Johnny Holloway, a Unity Group member and Rainbow/PUSH Coalition leader. "We have to teach love. That's the whole thing."

Love and unity don't come cheap; too often, disunity comes from our hands — white hands — that are too sleepy with stereotypes and the status quo. Since racism began with white people, fighting it must be our job, first and foremost.

"My freedom is tied to your freedom," said the Rev. Charlotte S.N.N. Williams, pastor of Eastdale Village Community United Methodist. "There is a fight for all of us. It is not black and white. It is a human issue."

Williams, a UT-Chattanooga and Clark Atlanta University graduate, embodies Unity's new leadership.

"It may look grim and the situation is dead, but we are a resurrection people," she said.

For McDaniel, the vision today is the same as 50 years ago.

"If we would just be kind and helpful to people in need, regardless of their race, and treat them the way we want to be treated, we would go a farther distance," he said. "The Unity Group can keep before us the call of Martin Luther King and others who are concerned about those whom God is concerned about, and I believe God is concerned about all His people."

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David Cook

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfreepress.com.

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