By ZOË WATKINS
“Lift every voice and sing till earth and heaven ring…let us march on till victory is won…may we forever stand, true to our God, true to our native land.”
These are some of the lyrics to the anthem and hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and they were sung by attendees at the 2024 MLK Fundraiser at the Fly Arts Center on Saturday.
“In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy, we celebrate today because we are living his dream,” said Rosie Biggs from the Gilliland Historical Resource Center. “This recognition of triumphs and struggle for generations remind us of what Dr. King died for: that we live through his dream. History lives through us.”
The fundraiser was sponsored by the Gilliland Historical Resource Center and was originally postponed from its original day on Martin Luther King Jr. Remembrance Day on Jan. 15 due to inclement weather.
Biggs said this year’s goal for the Gilliland Center is to raise $5,000 for a Tennessee Historical Marker that will memorialize James S. Gilliland, who was a prolific African American master craftsman. He lived from 1858 to 1949 in Shelbyville, and he most notably crafted the Gilliland historical home at 808 Lipscomb St. using limestone.
“James Gilliland was an extraordinary man,” said Biggs during the event. “He distinguished himself as a stone mason. His stone and brick work and stone foundation, retaining walls, and stone fences can be seen at many notable homes and businesses in this area.” These areas include stone fences at South Brittain Street and Audubon Street as well as the Prentice Cooper Estates on East Lane Street, according to an exhibit at the event.
Gilliland was also an astute businessman who had become a substantial landowner by the mid-1880s. He acquired about 300 acres in three different districts in Shelbyville, according to Biggs.
“He was an employer and he was a community activist,” said Biggs. “The Gilliland Historical Resource Center is the only African American culture arts center in Shelbyville and Bedford County. It is a collection and preservation of history, stories, artifacts, photos, and documents, all relating to the lives of Tennessee African Americans.”
The fundraiser featured a lunch, singing solos, and a presentation by keynote speaker Pastor Keith Avent from Brandon Chapel Missionary Baptist Church off U.S. 231 in Bell Buckle.
He was introduced to the audience by his sister, Dr. Sandra K. Avent, who drew several parallels between Pastor Avent and Martin Luther King Jr., such as being in Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity and being a family man and father of four children.
“But most importantly, most of them were dedicated to making sure that justice prevails,” said Dr. Avent.
During his speech, Pastor Avent emphasized several key ideas, chiefly, the phrase “I’m not going back.”
He quote from Galatians 5:1, stating, “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.”
He also talked about people who forget their history are doomed to repeat it.
“I’m not going back,” he said.
According to Avent, from Brown v Board of Education to Rosa Parks to Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington, each person fighting for civil rights in the mid-20th century were essentially saying, “I’m not going back.”
“These events happened and took place because the words of Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address stated a government of the people, by the people, for the people to enjoy a new birth of freedom based on the sacrifice of those who gave their lives for us,” said Avent. “We are here today to honor the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for his great sacrifice in challenging our leaders in his day seeing that at that time they were not living up to the promises made in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution.”
Pastor Avent then emphasized the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus Christ, which would have inspired and encouraged Dr. King who was pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala.
“Unlike man, Jesus keeps his promises,” said Avent. “In speaking here to the Galatians, Paul encourages and pleads with the Galatians not to forget where they came from, not to forget their past, not to forget where they were delivered from, and most importantly not to forget who did the saving.
“In other words, Paul was saying to Galatians you have been saved from your sins and we’re not going back.”
Pastor Avent said he sees the nation going backwards instead of forwards as leaders rewrite the Constitutions to their “agenda.”
“In certain communities and certain states, voting restrictions have been established not to encourage new voters, but to keep people from voting. Legislators are redrawing districts across the country in a practice known as gerrymandering to give favor to certain political candidates to get the results that they want. The Supreme Court just ended affirmative action for college admissions as unconstitutional and discriminatory,” said Avent. “Most of the backwards trend was established in 2017 when the former administration did all they could to strike down both civil and human rights law established since 1968.”
Pastor Avent then encouraged the audience to pray and vote.
“We want to be in a time when all of us are together working for the blessings of every citizen of this country,” said Avent. “We have forgotten our God and we have forgotten to pray.”