County's first black commissioner reflects on MLK

By Julie Fann
star staff
jfann@starhq.com
Robert Davis, Carter County's first African American commissioner elected just two years ago, is a graduate of Langston High School, a segregated high school in Johnson City that closed its doors after the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964. Davis remembers well a town that made sure blacks and whites remained separate.
"I can remember going to the train station in Johnson City, and there were two water fountains -- one for white people and one for 'coloreds'. Drug stores had separate places for colored people to eat. Even at the bus station they had four stools at the back of the restaurant for blacks to sit on," he said.
After high school, Davis joined the Army and served more than six years. He was stationed in Germany in 1968, the year Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.
"It was very devastating ... not just for black people, but for white people, all people," he said. "... We lost a great leader."
Davis doesn't remember much talk about Martin Luther King while he was in school. He first heard about him during the peaceful marches in Alabama and Washington, D.C. "Martin Luther King had a dream that all people would be united; that everyone was created equal ... Some of that dream is coming to the forefront right now," he said. "Civil rights are for all people, not just black people. How many women were employed before Martin Luther King brought up civil rights? How many African Americans were on police forces throughout the nation?"
Beginning his second year representing Carter County's 8th District, Davis said progress concerning race relations in the county has occurred, but there is definitely still a long way to go.
"With the current leadership that we have in Elizabethton and Carter County, I believe that we are on the road to make a substantial step toward progress. Of course, you know that leadership can change at any time," he said.
Davis said he looks forward to his second year as a commissioner. "One of the main things I'm looking forward to as county commissioner is that our county makes progress on the things that I ran on -- more jobs, education made better for all, and to see that industrial development works for the county and not just for certain individuals."
"I was elected on the premise that I would do what was best for the county, and that's what I've been trying to do. I've felt totally accepted. There have been one or two incidences where I've had conflicts, but, of course, that's to be expected. I believe that I can handle any conflict that I come up against."
Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The county's children are out of school and local government offices are closed. Davis, the first black commissioner elected in the 206-year history of Carter County, said Sunday night he looked forward to observing the holiday.
"One of the first things that we all should do is thank God that we lived to see this day come forward," he said.
Martin Luther King, Jr., born in 1929, was a Baptist minister who, at the age of 35, was the youngest man to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent stance for the rights of African Americans. Arrested approximately 20 times and assaulted at least four times, he wrote five books and several articles.
During the 1960's, King led a massive protest in Birmingham, Ala. that caught the attention of the entire world, providing what he called a coalition of conscience and inspiring his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail", a manifesto of the African American revolution.
He planned the drives in Alabama for the registration of African Americans as voters; he directed the peaceful march on Washington, D.C. of 250,000 people to whom he delivered his famous, "I Have a Dream" speech.
On the evening of April 4, 1968, while standing on a balcony of his motel room in Memphis where he was about to lead a protest march in sympathy with striking garbage workers of that city, he was assassinated, and the details surrounding his murder remain controversial.