TALLADEGA, Alabama (CNN) — The marching band of a small historically black college in Alabama will participate in the 58th Presidential Inaugural Parade, the school’s president announced Thursday.
The decision follows several days of controversy after the Talladega Marching Tornadoes initially accepted an invitation to perform on January 20, with critics saying the move amounts to support for President-elect Donald Trump. Trump made comments during the presidential campaign that were widely viewed as disparaging to people of color and immigrants.
Talladega College President Billy C. Hawkins announced the final decision in a statement, noting that the “lessons students can learn from this experience cannot be taught in a classroom.”
“We respect and appreciate how our students and alumni feel about our participation in this parade,” said Hawkins. “As many of those who chose to participate in the parade have said, we feel the inauguration of a new president is not a political event but a civil ceremony celebrating the transfer of power.”
Supporters of the trip argued that the experience would benefit the band — and be a source of pride for the relatively unknown school.
Critics also have accused Trump of fostering Islamophobia and xenophobia in a divisive, bitter campaign.
“I think with Donald Trump being the type person he is, the band shouldn’t go,” Ike Chukwuelue, 25, a Talladega student from Atlanta, said Wednesday.
“Marching in that parade would basically be siding with Trump and his ideals and the way he chooses to go about politics.”
College founded by former slaves
Chukwuelue, speaking on the school’s campus, also was worried that marching in the parade could affect the school’s enrollment.
“What kid are you going to get to come here now after you just marched for Trump in a parade?” he said.
The controversy sparked rival petitions — one first started by a graduate of the school asking The Great Tornado band to withdraw — and another by a band member in support of performing.
Talladega, which was founded in 1867 by former slaves, has 800 students. It is Alabama’s oldest private historically black liberal arts college, the school said.
“We have a reputation of fighting for freedom and equal rights and justice and he doesn’t stand for any of that,” said Shirley Ferrill.
Ferrill, a 1974 graduate from the school, started the petition calling for the band to withdraw.
She said she was most offended by Trump’s November 2015 rally in Birmingham, in which a Black Lives Matter protester was beaten, punched and kicked by white men in the crowd.
Hawkins said the school’s administration did not rush to accept the invitation because it wanted to “hear and consider the thoughts and feelings of the Talladega College community.”
He also noted that while the event is considered a “once-in-a-lifetime experience for the students,” the school must now raise more than $60,000 to cover the expense of the trip to Washington.
Inaugural claims record number of applicants
The school learned that it had been tapped to perform in a December 21 letter addressed to the band from inaugural parade organizers. The letter congratulated the band on being chosen.
“We had a record number of applicants, so our selection is a testament to your organization’s talent and enthusiasm,” the letter said.
Eight days later, the school’s band director faxed the required information to organizers. The next day, Trump’s inaugural committee listed the Talladega band on an initial lineup of performers.
Talladega resident Donald Morgan, a retired teacher who has four Talladega College graduates in his family, said the band would be playing for the office of the presidency — not specifically for Trump — and “for the country and for humanity.”
Quoting first lady Michelle Obama, Morgan, 62, said: “When they go low, we should go high. We’re going to respect him whether we like him or not because he is the President of the United States.”
Morgan said Talladega College had long provided opportunities for African Americans to get higher education after schools such as the University of Alabama refused to admit black students. “Now we can go anywhere … even to Washington to perform for the President of the United States,” he said.