History of MLK March in Nashville

The 31st Annual IMF Martin Luther King Jr. Day march celebrates the life, legacy and impact of Dr. King and Nashville’s role in the Civil Rights movement.

We recently celebrated and participated in the historical annual Martin L. King March. It is important that we remember some of the names of those who helped start the Martin L. King March in Nashville on January 17, 1989.

It is also imperative that we educate our community about many of the names and individuals who sacrificed to make the MLK activities a reality in the city.

Also, these individuals’ efforts and dedication were instrumental in making the march in Nashville one of the most participated events in the celebration of Dr. M. L. King across this country.

In 1988, Rev. James ‘Tex’ Thomas of the IMF along with other leaders in the city, including members of the NAACP, planned for the MLK March in Nashville. A few of the names included:  Mrs. C.E. McGruder; Walter Searcy; Dr. Charles Kimbrough; James Morris; Rev. James Turner, Sr.; Rev. Marilyn Ramsey; Rev. Venita D. Lewis; Dr. Dogan Williams; Rosie Sheers; Kwame L. Lillard; Councilman Mansfield Douglas; Councilman Willis McAllister; Rev. Enoch Fuzz; Deloris Wilkerson; Rev. Marcel Keller; Geraldine Heath; state Rep. Harold Love, Sr.; Jeff Obafemi Carr, president of the student government, Tennessee State University; and many others.

The purpose of the meeting was to establish a location and organize the city of Nashville for its first Martin L. King March. The group met with much opposition by leaders in the city.

The first march was held January 17, 1989 at the War Memorial Building. Over 2,500 marchers participated from churches and locations around the city. Rev. Sweeny and Rev. James Turner, Sr., along with several other preachers were instrumental in organizing church participation. Church members marched from their church locations to the War Memorial Building.

After the march, leaders met and protested the public-school system not closing its doors for MLK Day. Kwame Leo Lillard led many other protests against businesses such as Third National Bank, Sovran Bank and Kim’s Boutique on Jefferson Street who refused to honor the holiday.  Protesters included Jeff Carr, president of the student government TSU; Rev. Venita Lewis; James Morris; Mrs. C. E. McGruder; and many others.

These businesses vowed to conduct business as usually on MLK Day. “We will protest every business until they respect the Martin L. King Holiday,” said Kwame Lillard. These protest efforts ultimately forced many businesses to close their doors for the MLK Day celebration of 1990. The public school system ultimately declared MLK Day a holiday.

TSU student government President Jeff Carr led the effort to galvanize college participation.  Through his efforts, partnerships were built with students at Tennessee State, Fisk and Meharry University. Also, students participated from Belmont, David Lipscomb and Vanderbilt Universities. This partnership brought together youth of all ethnic backgrounds across the city.

A group of leaders met at Jefferson Street Baptist Church the night before the event and made approximately 100 signs for the youth and marchers. The effort helped build the march presentation and visibility. Howard Jones, Sr. donated annually to cover the cost of materials to build the signs.

“I was pleased to be a part of one the first marches in Nashville,” said Carr. “There was a glitch in the program and somehow the emcee cut the program mid-stream,” said Carr. “The students didn’t like that, so they started chanting, ‘Let Jeff speak.’ I eventually was allowed to give my prepared speech to the crowd. It was humbling and amazing.

“A few months later, I led a sit-in protest at Tennessee State University that ultimately led to having many improvements for the university. Many of the conveniences that the students enjoy today were started from the hunger strike and protest of the students from 1990.

“We were inspired to build off the legacy of Dr. King. That’s the point of the MLK March. It is not just to march, but to organize and build what our community needs.”

“I was pleased to be one of the speakers for the youth, and talked about the danger of drugs in our community,” said Rev. Lewis. “I still work with the youth in our community, which was stimulated by my participation with Act-So and assist organizing youth during the MLK activities.”

Many of the innovations, dedications and efforts from the group of organizers of the first MLK March in 1989 are still visible and instrumental in the success of the MLK March and activities in Nashville.

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