Unity, Harmony, Love: Hundreds march to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Zach Vance • Updated Jan 15, 2018 at 7:09 PM

On what would have been Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 89th birthday, hundreds of people from different backgrounds, ethnicities and religions celebrated his dream of equality by marching through downtown Johnson City in the United for Change Unity Walk.

The celebration began at Greater Love International Church, where marchers first listened to various community leaders speak about the importance of keeping King’s dream existent in today’s society. 

During his brief remarks, Johnson City Mayor David Tomita recalled advice he gave to local journalism students last year, shortly after the presidential election of 2016. 

 “A couple of them were asking questions regarding the political environment, and one them asked, ‘What are we going to do?’ ” Tomita said. 

“The first thing I’m going to do is turn off the TV. ... Quit paying attention to that because you know what? It doesn’t matter who’s in Washington, D.C., it doesn’t matter who’s in Nashville, it doesn’t matter who’s in downtown. It doesn’t matter who your leaders are. Nobody can make you treat me poorly. And nobody else can make me treat you poorly.

“Just be nice to each other. Be respectful of each other. Be respectful of ideas and ideology that might be different from our own. That’s what makes this country great is we’re all free to have our own opinions and that’s important.” 

Instead of ignoring the political discourse, Dr. Jason Bembry, a professor at Milligan College’s Emmanuel Christian Seminary, was more direct, criticizing President Donald Trump for inciting racial and nationalist tensions.

“We have a president who says racist things. We have a president who says bigoted things, and we have a president that says nationalist things. That’s a problem,” Bembry said.

“It’s a problem when anybody (does) that, right? It’s a problem when anybody is a racist. It’s a problem when anybody is a bigot. It’s a problem when anybody is a nationalist. But it’s particularly a problem when the president of the United States is one. Because what that does is it tells people who have those feelings, that those feelings are OK.”

Despite it being a day off for many, Vice Mayor Jenny Brock called for those gathered to make Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a day of action toward achieving equality. 

“My challenge today is for us all to live a life of action. To not turn away from the tough times, but to lean into them. Let us recognize today that individually we can make a difference by being role models for justice and moral rightness,” Brock said. 

Just before the march started, Police Chief Mark Sirois received a standing ovation when city leaders presented him with a plaque honoring his 26 years of contributions to the community.

Sirois, who held the banner and led the march during its first leg, plans to retire next month. 

“Chief, you’ve honored us with your leadership and with your love of all people in Johnson City. I’ve always described you as someone who’s been able to combine the right amount of toughness with the right amount of kindness. You’ve been a leader in bringing our wonderful diverse citizenry together in dialogue (and) we will miss you as you retire,” Brock said. 

Despite the chilly temperature, organizer Mike Cummings estimated this year’s crowd of marchers topped last year’s gathering. 

With at least 300 people marching and shouting “Unity, Harmony and Love,” the walk lasted about 45 minutes and covered nearly two miles, extending from the church to Founders Park and back.  

Email Zach Vance at zvance@johnsoncitypress.com. Follow Zach Vance on Twitter at @ZachVanceJCP. Like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/ZachVanceJCP.





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