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MLK Day event to take people back in time to local sit-ins

The words of Martin Luther King Junior will ring out inside Lindsay Street Hall Monday, Jan. 21, helping to keep his dream alive 50 years after his words originally inspired a nation.

He was a voice of peace that fought for the rights of all African-Americans.

A video will begin the remembrance event at 2 p.m. Titled “The Witness from Room 306,” the film shows the Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles’ recount of the day King was shot. Kyles was the only other person on the balcony with the famed civil rights leader that day.

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Martin Luther King Day panelists tell about their experiences as participants in the Chattanooga sit-ins of 1960. From left are Vernon Jones, Virgil Roberson, Ernestine Hall, Robert Parks and Jerry Spriggs.

Following the video, a panel of African-Americans who took part in the Chattanooga sit-ins of 1960 will recount their experiences and answer questions. The panelists are Ernestine Hall, Jerry Spriggs, Vernon Jones and Virgil Roberson. After the event, Mount Olivet Baptist Church will lead a march down M.L. King Boulevard.

Roberson, now age 70, remembers participating in local sit-ins when he was a 17-year-old Howard High School senior.

“We went to Woolworth’s [Feb. 19, 1960] and they closed down the store, so we went to Grant’s and sat on stools but no service was rendered,” recounted the North Brainerd resident who participated in peaceful sit-ins for one week asking people to serve him at lunch counters. “It was against the law to serve us at that time. We sat for 30 minutes at Grant’s and then we went out the back door. Thank God they did not attack us.”

He said the sit-ins in Chattanooga began on a Friday and were peaceful until an act of violence occurred on Tuesday. By Wednesday, firefighters in downtown Chattanooga had started hosing people down on the streets with fire hoses to break up crowds, he said.

Due in part to their protests and a group of ministers, African Americans were able to dine out in restaurants in August 1960.

“One of the most interesting stories I’ve heard was that several of the business owners got wind that the sit-ins would occur and told the boys’ parents that if their sons participated, that they would be fired,” said Jayme Upton, director of event sponsor Retired and Senior Volunteer Program of Senior Neighbors, an Alexian Brothers ministry. “But Howard High School seniors participated in the sit-ins.”

She invites everyone in the community to come out and experience one of the defining movements in American, as well as local, history. The first local MLK event four years ago hosted 25 people, but adding the panel last year increased attendance to 75 people.

“This generation will be lost soon and I would like for as many people as possible to hear their stories,” said Upton, adding that she hopes students especially will come out and learn about local history.

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