The Rev. Benjamin Lewis remembers his father walking into his Atlanta home with tears in his eyes after the death of civil rights activist Medgar Evers. Five years later, the scene played itself out again after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
Lewis has felt the same pain time and time again throughout his life — a feeling as if he “couldn’t breathe” — after the deaths of James Byrd Jr., Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Atatiana Jefferson, Botham Jean, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and countless others.
That traumatic sensation, however, eased somewhat as the pastor of the Bethel Baptist Church in Alcoa witnessed the overwhelming turnout of the local “Let Justice Ring Rally” on Sunday to support Black Lives Matter.
“As far as my eyes could see, there were black people and white people, mixed-race people, Asian people, Latino people, old people and young people,” Lewis said while speaking at the rally. “When I saw all of those people marching to denounce racism, I could breathe.”
The Alcoa-Blount County NAACP and Blount County United partnered to host the rally, which began with a march that started at the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center in Alcoa and ended at the Blount County Courthouse.
It included representation from all three of Blount County’s top law enforcement agencies and brought together thousands of people from Blount County and the Knoxville area.
“I love this community,” the Blount County Mayor’s Office posted to Facebook after the event. “An amazing representation of today of all that is Blount County. … Thank all of you Blount Countians who attended today’s peaceful rally at the courthouse.
“We are blessed to live in a county where we can come together for the good of our community.”
Once the crowd arrived at the steps of the courthouse, chants of “two, four, six, eight, stop the violence, stop the hate,” and “no justice, no peace” kicked off a rally that featured singing, prayer, recitations and speeches from local activist Delali Gadzekpo; the Revs. Richard Turney, of Rest Haven Baptist Church, and Willa Estell, senior pastor at St. Paul AME Zion Church; and Lewis.
“I hope you understand that we’re at a critical point in our country because now the world is starting to know and understand what we’ve been trying to tell them for 400 years,” Lewis said. “Black lives matter.”
The support for the Black Lives Matter movement is at an all-time high with protests spanning the globe, but systemic racism will not end with just large gatherings of people, speakers said.
While those on stage acknowledged that this moment of togetherness feels like a turning point, they all agree that the only way to end a problem that has existed in this country since before inception is to continue taking the necessary steps as a unified force for change.
“We need radical change, and we need it now,” Gadzekpo said. “Back during the civil rights movement, everything from start to finish was planned and executed methodically and meticulously with an undying passion — every agenda had a purpose. We must fight to do the same together as one.
“I’m not only talking about now as Black Lives Matter is the No. 1 hashtag on Instagram and Twitter. I’m talking about next week, next month, next year and for many years to come … so that we may have the basic human rights we deserve,” she said.