TALLADEGA -- Talladega College President Dr. Billy C. Hawkins addressed members of the media and the student body Friday during a press conference at Swayne Hall.
Hawkins answered questions surrounding his recent decision to allow the Marching Tornadoes to participate in the presidential inauguration Jan. 20 and said he has witnessed the city of Talladega “come together” before his very eyes.
“We have received support from the City Council, Rotary Club and various other community organizations,” Hawkins said.
On Monday, the Talladega City Council donated $5,000 to the band. That, plus the $55,000 total reached early Thursday on the band’s gofundme account, pushed the total past the minimum estimated overall trip cost of $60,000.
Cindy Pennington, president of the Talladega Rotary Club, presented a $500 check to Hawkins on Friday.
“We just want the college to know that we fully support your endeavors,” Pennington said.
A sudden flow of donations surged the last couple of days in support of the band’s recent decision to accept the parade invitation.
The gofundme goal was to raise $75,000 by Jan. 15. On Friday, Hawkins said around $350,00 has collectively been raised from the gofundme page, donations from the city and mailed-in donations.
As of Friday, $327,882 had been donated through gofundme alone.
“I want to thank everyone who has contributed,” Hawkins said. “The page remains open for people that wish to donate.”
Talladega College Associate Vice President Walvid King said the school had been raising money for the trip “nickel by nickel,” which was preferred to any lump sum donation.
The college president and Board of Trustees took days gauging feedback from students and alumni but never considered the opportunity to be a political one.
“Talladega College is not and has never been a partisan institution,” Hawkins said. “I have always viewed this experience as a civic opportunity.”
Nonetheless, the decision has been strongly criticized, largely by alumni, who believe Alabama’s oldest HBCU (Historically Black College) should refuse the invitation to play for President-elect Donald Trump, whose campaign was dogged by racial tension.
“I have been amazed at the level of hate I have been subject to over wanting to provide an opportunity of a lifetime to our students,” he said. “I have even received death threats over my decision.”
Hawkins mentioned meeting last week with more than 400 college presidents during a business trip in Florida.
“Not one of them that I spoke with have said to me that I have made the wrong decision,” he said. “In the end, it was about the opportunity for these students.”
Hawkins noted that the tone from alums has also started to shift.
Talladega College alum and Hampton University President William R. Harvey expressed his support in a letter addressed to the college.
“In my view, it is an honor to be invited to the inauguration of any president of the United States,” it reads. “It will be a wonderful learning experience for the students in the band. It will be a teachable moment for them to understand the importance of supporting the leader of the free world, despite one’s political viewpoint.”
Harvey said Hawkins and Talladega College are setting an example of “courageous leadership.”
With donations now more than four times the original goal, Hawkins said “leftover funds will be used to benefit multiple capital improvement projects, including new band uniforms, structural improvements and scholarship money.”
“Our school, along with many other HBCUs, have a lot of funding needs. The last eight years, funding and support has been down. You don’t get to eat unless you sit at the table. We are planning to build two new dormitories and a campus museum for our students.”
Additionally, Hawkins noted that around 100 additional students have voiced interest in attending the D.C. trip.
“Our vice president of student affairs is vetting how we can make this happen,” he said.
The city of Talladega plans to play host to an official “send-off” for the band Wednesday night on the square.
“We are still working with city officials on planning out the final details,” Hawkins said, “but we want everyone to come out and wish the band well.”