KNOXVILLE (WATE) – Saturday marks 50 years since the day 600 demonstrators set off to march 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. It was meant to be a day of peace, but instead would prove to be one of the most brutal moments in the Civil Rights Movement.
Dozens of demonstrators would end up in the hospital after being tear gassed and beaten by state troopers near the Edmund Pettis Bridge. The day that came to be known as “Bloody Sunday” had a huge impact on civil rights across America, including in Knoxville.
Some of the activists who played a big role in the Civil Rights Movement in Knoxville say even though the city had its racial issues, it was a different fight from other areas like Selma.
Robert Booker was the student government president at Knoxville College in the 1960s.Slideshow: Selma 50 Years Later
“Well the idea was that we were about to graduate from college and were going to graduate into second class citizenship, so we thought if there’s an opportunity to make some changes, then that’s what we’ll do,” said Booker.
That was the reason behind starting the movement in Knoxville. Booker was a part of the many public demonstrations and lunch counter sit-ins at movie theaters and restaurants in the area that were segregated.
“Of course it was all worth it. I’d do it all over again,” said Booker.
Even though things weren’t perfect, Booker says things were different in Knoxville from other cities.
“The white community really pitched in. The white community was sympathetic. The white community participated,” said Booker.
Theotis Robinson Jr, one of the first African American students at the University of Tennessee, agrees.Related story:Knoxville march next month to mark 50th anniversary of Selma voting rights march
“It was very different than what it was in other places,” said Robinson.
Robinson recalls there were no riots or police escorts. As a young 18 year old just graduating from the segregated Austin High School, Robinson challenged UT’s policy on letting blacks enroll into school.
Robinson’s determination prevailed.
“In my mind, I didn’t have a choice if I was about what I said I was about, which was knocking down barriers, racial barriers and racial discrimination. It was just my place to do it,” said Robinson.
Both men are happy about the progress over the past 50 years, but they say more change needs to happen.
“I think we have problems in education certainly. I think our schools are failing, and we can do something about that,” said Booker.
Both Booker and Robinson are retired and write columns for the Knoxville News Sentinel. Booker’s focuses on history and Robinson’s on current events.WATE 6 On Your Side ReporterKristen Holloway will be there as thousands cross the Edmund Pettis Bridge in memory of that day. Tune into WATE 6 On Your Side News at 6 and 11 on Saturday and Sunday.