Band Defies Critics, Reaps Reward Through Inauguration

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Talladega College President Billy Hawkins is surrounded by the media and students during a send off to march in the inaurugal parade in Washington. Hawkins was criticized harshly for the band’s participation, but the program is $650,000 richer for doing so. Photo courtesy of Anniston Star

By Brookie Madison, 

Howard University News Service   

WASHINGTON – At Talladega College, a tiny historically black institution 55 miles east of Birmingham, Ala., the president, the administration, the band director and the school’s 230-member marching band are as giddy in anticipation as a 9-year-old a week before Christmas.

In this case, however, Santa Claus, in the names of Donald Trump and his supporters and Fox-TV’s Bill O’Reilly and his millions of viewers have already come to town and left the cash-strapped school $670,000 to march in Trump’s inauguration.

And now it’s time to go shopping.

Visions of new trumpets, clarinets, Sousaphones, drums and trombones are dancing in their heads.  There’s talk of a new band room big enough for all the members of the Great Tornado Marching Band to get in without stepping over each other.  The college is even considering its own buses to get the band to performances at NFL games, the New Orleans Mardi Gras and the numerous other venues the band plays annually.

“This has been an absolutely amazing ride,” said Greg Wilson, a spokesman for the college rode back to Talladega on the buses with the band. “What started out as a GoFundMe account just to get to D.C. to participate in the inauguration has morphed into something far greater.

“In terms of the financials, it’s a blessing.  We’re thankful for it.  The band has an immense amount of needs.”

Probably no one is happier than Talladega President Billy Hawkins.

“This is also a demonstration that we made the right decision to allow our students the opportunity to participate in a civic ceremony,” Hawkins said Tuesday.

“It provided our students this opportunity to be a part of history and something they will remember for the rest of their lives.”

A little over a month ago, the college was the target of scorn nationally from activists and alumni for having agreeing to participate in the inauguration of a president-elect largely loathed by African-Americans.  The band had applied to march in the parade long before the election, but when Trump won on Nov. 9 instead of Hillary Clinton and invited the band to participate, an avalanche of criticism engulfed the school.

Shirley Ferrill of Fairfield, Ala., a member of the graduating class of 1974, told the Associated Press that she and other alumni were horrified to hear news of the school’s participation. She said didn’t want her alma mater to seem as if it was supporting Trump in any way.  She created a petition asking for the withdrawal of the band from the inaugural festivities that gathered over 2,000 signatures.

Poet Nikky Finney, a Talladega graduate and professor at the University of South Carolina, said she felt the band should not celebrate Trump.

“The college had sold out the history of Talladega College for chicken change [and] maybe a tin star on a hatemonger’s parade route,” Finney told the New York Times.

Much of that criticism was directed at Hawkins.

“They’ve said that I have shamed the college by making this decision and have had folks to say I am a disgrace to my African-American race,” he said during a television interview before the inauguration.

With such a furor, Hawkins considered pulling out, but decided to go after all.

“This was never about politics and those who were critical of this didn’t think about the students,” he said.  “They deserve the same right to participate in this parade just like all the other parade participants.”

The band set up a Go Fund Me account with the goal of $75,000. In the beginning, there was a slight trickle, but after the college president appeared on the Bill O’Reilly show on Fox TV, the money flooded in.  The college received $670,000 in the Go Fund Me account in a mere 15 days.

The contributions were led by large donors.  O’Reilly chipped in $25,000. Ophelia and Juan Roca, two Miami-based philanthropists, gave $6,000.  That was followed by two anonymous donors of $5,000 each, then scores of four figure donations.  More than 50 people gave at least $1,000.

The donations were often accompanied by comments reflecting the donor’s support of Trump and O’Reilly.

“Congratulations to the band, to O’Reilly and O’Reilly Factor, to the college,” the Rocas wrote. I’m very proud of your students.”

Howard Anderson gave $2,500.

“I wish you the best as we make America great Again,” Anderson wrote. “We are with you Our FUTURE Thank You. I love you GOD BLESS.”

Edward Kinsey gave $500. “Your courage is an example of doing the right thing to support the United States of America,” Kinsey said.

Ferrill said she wished her petition had moved the school not to participate and she still feels the school made a mistake. “For me, it transcends the money,” she said Tuesday as she quoted a passage from the Bible, “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, but loses his soul?’”

For the band and the school, the influx of cash has been a godsend. One third of the school’s 800 students participates in the band, officials said, and most of those students as well as at least half of the students on are some form of federal loans.

“Financial aid is a challenge to pay for, especially for students at historically black colleges,” Hawkins said. “Now we will be able to provide additional scholarships.”

He said he hopes to build on the school’s success, with alumni and others.

“I would to see a new established donor base and I would hope that those that gave would continue to support the band and Talladega College,” he said. “It was so, so positive.”

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