A fire burned down a social justice center with deep ties to the Civil Rights movement in New Market, Tennessee, late last week (March 29). The group now says through its Facebook page that the fire may have been intentionally set after "a symbol connected to the White power movement" was found spray painted in the parking lot near their main office.
The organization, the Highlander Center for Research and Education, was critically important to the Civil Rights movement, hosting iconic leaders such as Rosa Parks, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy and singer Pete Seeger. Its trainings helped lay the groundwork for some of the movement’s most important efforts, including the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, according to the center’s website.
Highlander said its main office was home to decades worth of documents, memorabilia and speeches that were destroyed in the fire.
"Because of our history, we are not surprised that this space, one where marginalized people working across sectors, geographies and identities show up consistently, has been repeatedly targeted over our 87 years of existence," the organization said in a statement posted to Facebook on Tuesday.
Jefferson County Sheriff Jeff Coffey confirmed the graffiti, which he described as a hashtag symbol. "It’s not a traditional, throw-it-in-your-face symbol that you would immediately recognize," Coffeys told the Knoxville News Sentinel. "But it has been used by individuals in the past."
Knoxville News published a photograph of the symbol, which consisted of three vertical lines intersecting with three horizontal lines painted in black. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has identified it as one used by the Iron Guard, a far-right, anti-Semitic movement active in Romania in the 1930s and 40s.
"Right-wing extremists in Europe and some in the United States have occasionally used that symbol, including in Tennessee," Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow with the ADL’s Center on Extremism, told Knoxville News. He added that, most recently, the man accused of killing 50 people in two New Zealand mosques had the symbol painted on one of his guns.
Coffey said the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office and the Tennessee Fire Marshall’s Office are continuing their investigation to determine the cause of the fire.
The Highlander Center has called on the community to stay aware:
This is a time for building our power. Now is the time to be vigilant. To love each other and support each other and to keep each other safe in turbulent times. Now is not 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.
What’s next for Highlander is that we will continue to be that sacred place, that movement home, that place where strategy is developed, that place where principled struggle happens, that place that accompanies movement, that place that incubates radical work, and that place that demands transformative justice.
Read their full statement, below: