Authorities are still investigating the cause of a fire that destroyed decades of archives at a Tennessee social justice center that trained Martin Luther King Jr. and other notable civil rights leaders. Amid the rubble, officials also found a “white power” symbol spray-painted at the site.
The symbol, which officials said resembled a tic-tac-toe board, was discovered on the parking lot near the main office that burned down in Friday’s blaze in the northeastern Tennessee town of New Market, the Highlander Research and Education Center said in a press release. Officials said the symbol is connected to a known white power movement.
“While we don’t know the names of the culprits, we know the white power movement has been increasing and consolidating power across the South, across this nation, and globally,” the organization said in its statement. “Since 2016, the white power movement has become more visible, [and] we’ve seen that manifest in various ways, both subtle and overt.”
“The safety of our people is and has always been our first concern,” it continued. “The investigation is nowhere near over. We’re continuing to survive and monitor the process that takes more time in a rural geography with limited public resources.”
On Monday, Jefferson County Sheriff Jeff Coffey said investigators would remain on site for two or three days as they work to determine what sparked the fire. The inferno destroyed one of 10 buildings on the center’s sprawling, rural property, as well as “decades of historic documents, speeches, artifacts and memorabilia from movements of all kinds including the Civil Rights Movement,” according to the center’s release.
State bomb and arson agents are also investigating, but officials have declined to say whether arson is suspected.
So far, officials have not identified the group thought to be connected to the racist symbol but reports say the same symbol has been used by notorious white supremacists, including the gunman who opened fire on a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand last month, killing 50 people.
Since 1932, the Highlander Center has trained labor organizers and famed civil rights leaders including MLK Jr., Rosa Parks and Ralph D. Abernathy, Knoxville station WVLT reported. It was founded as the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tenn., before moving to New Market in 1972.
“Rosa Parks not only trained here but served on our board of directors for years,” Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson, co-executive director for the center, told the station. “Martin Luther King was here, so many amazing folks that people think of that were bastions of the labor movement, of the civil rights movement.”
According to the center’s website, it also played a pivotal role in helping organize the boycotts in Montgomery, Alabama, and aided in the establishment of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
“You can set a building on fire, but you can’t stop a movement with fire,” Henderson added.
No injuries were reported in Friday’s blaze. On Tuesday, the Highlander called for the community to come together and remain aware.
“Now is the time to be vigilant. To love each other and support each other and to keep each other safe in turbulent times,” it said in a statement posted to Facebook. “Now isn’t the time to dismiss how scary things are, which makes it even more important to have concrete assessments of concrete conditions, and sophisticated strategies to build a new world.”
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