Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.
Pulaski, Tennessee has lived under a dark cloud for years with the reputation of being the home of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), but many people don’t know the rest of the story.
The citizens of Pulaski and Giles County stood tall as a community on October 7, 1989, against hate, discrimination and inequality. They came together as one to boycott the annual march of the KKK and Aryan Brotherhood. Stores closed, restaurants closed and Walmart even closed. There was no place left open to eat, sleep or go to the restroom. Pulaski stood up and said NO; we don’t want this in our town any longer.
That event is rarely talked about—rarely remembered. So, Ted Brown, Martin Methodist College President, asked David Alford to make the story come to life again on stage to remind people of a negative time in history that was transformed into a positive story—a story of community that should be remembered and celebrated.
Alford is a writer, actor, director, producer and teacher. He is an alumnus of Martin Methodist, the creator of the college’s dramatic arts program and the former program coordinator of dramatic arts. Alford currently serves as a visiting dramatic arts professor at MMC in addition to playing his role as Bucky Dawes in the hit ABC television series Nashville. He also wrote the historical drama Spirit about the Bell Witch that is produced annually in Adams, Tennessee.
With his mission in mind, Alford, along with a team of Martin Methodist students, interviewed key people responsible for organizing the 1989 boycott. They also interviewed Pulaski citizens as well as the National Director of the KKK, Thom Robb. After months of researching and interviewing, Alford had the information he needed to compile this unprecedented historical drama.
In February, MMC’s Dramatic Arts Department presented Boycott: Pulaski, Tennessee, and the Legacy of the Ku Klux Klan. Written and directed by David Alford, the work was performed as a dramatic reading by an ensemble of actors depicting 34 real-life characters including city merchants, officials, activists, law enforcement personnel, citizens and others. The interviews were left in their true form; dramatic effect was not added. The performance was real and pure.
Alford had this to say about the first performance, “I thought this initial staging of the piece went pretty well. The students took it very seriously and worked extremely hard. I think they felt an obligation to tell the community’s story well. I know I certainly did. It’s a great story. And they did a fine job. Obviously, there are limitations any time you are doing a reading instead of a full-blown production, but I thought overall it was effective. Audiences seemed to respond to it in a positive way. It generated some strong reactions, emotionally, which is something you always want as a theatre practitioner. I know there were a lot of people in Pulaski who view that period of time as something unpleasant and not a point in history they particularly want to revisit, but we wanted to focus on the positive aspects of the community coming together, not the divisive ones. And I think largely we succeeded.”
“Inspiring and eye opening is what I would call it,” expressed J.B. Smith, a lifelong Giles County citizen and crucial member of the boycott organization team. “David and his team conducted in depth research and uncovered facts about the event that I didn’t know, and I was right in the midst of the planning. The play was an accurate depiction of the events surrounding the boycott, and I appreciated how it was done.”
One question that has been resonant after the final performance is, “What happens now?”
David answered the question this way, “Well, who knows? We’ll have to see. The positive reactions we got from the production were certainly encouraging. We heard suggestions that ranged from publishing a book on the subject, to doing a documentary, to writing a screenplay for a feature film and of course, presenting a more thoroughly-realized, fully-produced stage version that might be seen in Pulaski and other places as well, maybe even New York. All those are certainly possibilities. But of course, they all require a significant investment of time and money and human capital. So if the enthusiasm lasts and the will is there, I’m sure at least one of those options will happen eventually. I’m going to sit down soon with David Wilkerson, a friend and drama professor at Martin Methodist, and President Brown, and we’ll talk and see what the next steps might be. But it’s incredibly gratifying to have enough of a positive response to warrant that kind of discussion.”
Quoting Giles County native and Pulaski attorney Chris Williams, “Racism is a disease, like smallpox, that has left its scars on all of us; ugly, embarrassing and painful to see. Boycott boldly exposes them to the world, though, and memorializes the time when brave Pulaski neighbors came together to defeat a plague our town has uniquely suffered for a hundred years. Alford’s production is a gutsy success, and the actors’ characterizations are spot-on.” In his post-performance comments, Alford asked whether Boycott should be repeated. The real question, Mr. Director, “Is how can we afford for it to not be?”
Sissy Garner is a former college English teacher and local radio personality. She currently serves as director of communications at Martin Methodist College.