A masked crowd of around 500 people gathered Tuesday night at the historically black First Baptist Missionary Church in Franklin for a prayer vigil.
The vigil was in memory of black Americans killed this year, including Ahmaud Arbery, a Georgia man who was shot while jogging; Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old who was shot eight times by a Louisville police officer; and George Floyd, a Minneapolis man killed when police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for nine minutes.
Chauvin has since been arrested and charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter, and two men involved in the Arbery shooting have been charged with felony murder.
The Franklin crowd Tuesday congregated in the parking lot behind the church, spilling over into the street behind the Franklin Police Station and Natchez Street, a predominantly black neighborhood.
The event, titled “Jesus and Justice,” was held by a group of local pastors, including Dr. Chris Williamson from Strong Tower Bible Church and Pastor Walter Simmons from Empower Community Church.
Tensions rose throughout the day, with rumors spreading about the potential for protests and riots in downtown Franklin. One shop, Dion’s South Salon on Main Street, even had a boarded up storefront as a precaution against damage.
Franklin Police released a statement prior to the vigil saying they were monitoring the situation and had no indication that outside groups might take part.
During the vigil, which ran for a little over two hours, faith and civic leaders spoke to the importance of dismantling a system of racism that has endured since the nation’s founding.
“How shall we respond to hate? It’s easy. We respond to hate with love,” First Missionary Baptist Church Rev. Timothy Gaines said to applause from the crowd.
While black leaders spoke of their experiences, white leaders, like Franklin City Administrator Eric Stuckey and FPD Chief Deborah Faulkner, voiced their support for equality.
“We’re about protecting life, enhancing life, not taking it,” Stuckey said, calling for Franklin to be an example to other cities. “We can do better, and Franklin is just the place to do it. I believe it in my heart.”
Faulkner, who has been the head of Franklin’s police force since 2014, said her parents raised her not to tolerate hatred and injustice, a practice she has carried throughout her professional life.
“We have to continue to light a candle and do good works,” she said.
Other leaders called for change at the ballot box. Howard Garrett, who ran unsuccessfully for a Franklin alderman seat last fall, urged the crowd to vote for leaders who would work to foster unity and vote against those who seek out division.
“Although we came on different ships, we are part of the same boat,” he said in closing.
Williamson, who helped lead the charge to install the Fuller Story markers on Town Square, closed the evening by referencing his T-shirt, which read, “I can’t breathe.”
“I know someone else who couldn’t breathe,” he said, referencing Jesus’ death on the cross, of which historians say suffocation was a major factor.
“George Floyd said, ‘I can’t breathe.’ And it’s walking with a Jesus like that that keeps black folks from losing our minds. ... He’s one of the reasons we don’t go out and hurt other people. Even when our enemies are crucifying us, it’s only because of Jesus we’re in our right minds today.”
The beating sunshine of the day faded into twilight, as calm descended upon the crowd just before 8 p.m. Candles were lit as names of those unjustly killed were read before Williamson called on the crowd to kneel in prayer.
“It’s going to be uncomfortable, asphalt; it’s going to leave a print,” he said. “Let it remind you what brother George went through for nearly nine minutes on his face.”
After the prayer, Williamson urged the crowd to go home and not seek out trouble.
“Don’t you go down to Town Square and start no trouble,” he said to laughs from the crowd as they dispersed to head home.