It’s been more than four years since a local pastor stood in the pulpit and challenged Blount Countians to come together against racism in the aftermath of shootings by police officers of black males across the nation.

The service was held in December 2014, and in January 2015, Blount County United was born. Since that time, BCU has grown its support, hosted an annual Prayer Walk Against Racism, offered a youth academy to local teenagers to bolster their knowledge about local law enforcement and created a training program for minorities interested in becoming community leaders.

As the Rev. Willa Estell sees it, much progress has been made, but the journey to racial justice and equality still has miles to go.

“We were birthed out of prayer,” Estell said. The pastor of St. Paul AME Zion Church saw more than 150 people crowded into the pews of her small church in that 2014 call to action. Committees for education, youth, civic and faith have been created, and each has programs to combat racism and bring unity.

An event sent for Oct. 10 at the Clayton Center for the Arts will serve as a fundraiser to support those efforts. Blount’s Got Talent will be held that evening at 6 p.m. BCU is seeklng more local talent to sign up for the friendly competition.

Individuals and groups can compete in four different categories — singing, dancing, instrumental and comedy. All ages are invited to participate in the family friendly event. Cost is $25 for competitors and $25 for audience members.

Prayer Walk set for Sept. 28

The annual Prayer Walk Against Racism will take place this year on Saturday, Sept. 28. It will have an added component, Estell said. It will be called the Prayer Walk Against Racism and Gun Violence.

Thankfully, there have been no mass shootings in Blount County. Estell said it is BCU’s stance not to wait until something tragic happens. She said everyone in the community should stand united against racism and gun violence.

“We are against gun violence and racism in any form,” the pastor said. “I don’t know of any faith communities — whether Christian or Jewish or others — that stand for racism or gun violence. It is something we can all come together on ecumenically.”

There were two recent mass shootings in Texas, but there have been more. BCU held an Interfaith Prayer Service back in November 2017 in the aftermath of a mass shooting at a church near San Antonio, where 26 people died and 20 others were injured.

A Stand Against Racism Rally was held in August 2017 following the tragic death in Charlottesville, Virginia, during a demonstration by hate groups.

BCU came together with local law enforcement and elected leaders in February 2018 to sign a covenant for a better community. The covenant stated the undersigned parties would vow to uphold the principles of mutual respect and integrity to enforce fairness and equity, and to uphold the human rights of all Blount Countians.

Mayors, the sheriff and police chiefs in Alcoa and Maryville signed it.

Visiting the Civil Rights Museum

The money raised at Blount’s Got Talent will be used for things like a trip to Alabama to visit the Civil Rights Museum, Estell said. It would be a community-wide trip, she said, so that everyone regardless of race might better understand the journey of African Americans.

“A big part of it for me is to bring our youth together,” Estell said.

Funds also would be used to host more workshops led by BCU and for materials for its Accelerated Candidate Training Program. It launched in January. The primary focus is to prepare a new generation of community and political leaders. Part of the experience is learning about local government and service with organizations. Sharon Hannum heads up the effort as chair of BCU’s Civic Committee. In addition, BCU has been working with the local NAACP on voter registration.

“We just want to get out there more and more,” Estell said. “We are available to come and talk to churches and organizations about racism and the reality that it is still prevalent today. We are still trying to create that beloved community in Blount County.”

BCU is open for membership. It meets on the fourth Saturday of each month at St. Paul AME Zion Church.

Ruth Holloway has been working for months on promoting Blount’s Got Talent. She has been active with BCU for three years and attended that call to action in 2014. The self-proclaimed community activist and advocate believes more support for these efforts will give a stronger voice to the causes.

“It takes a lot to get the message out, have influence and make positive changes,” Holloway said.

She knows there is plenty of local talent. There is still time to sign up for this fundraising event. Top prize is $500.

All in this together

Keri Prigmore, another member of BCU, said she wants Blount County to know this organization exists to bring unity. She serves as director of attendance for Alcoa City Schools and is also coordinator of three programs.

“People think it’s just about one race and it’s not,” she said. “It is about us all.”

She quoted a proverb that states, “I am because we are and we are because I am.”

Her mom was raised in Selma, Alabama, where racial violence broke out during a voting rights movement. Prigmore said what happened in the 1960s is raising its head again. That’s why BCU is so important, she explained.

“I won’t be here forever for my children.” Prigmore said. “I have to show them and the kids at Alcoa City Schools. I have to show them what they need to do to continue on what we are doing.”

Melanie joined The Daily Times in the early 90s and has served as the Life section editor since 1993. A William Blount and UT alum, Melanie is generally the early arriver who turns on the lights in the newsroom.

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