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Marching Band's Expected Performance In Inaugural Parade Sparks Controversy

Construction continues on the stands on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House in preparation for the inaugural parade on Jan. 20.

The organizers of President-elect Donald Trump's inaugural parade released a list of the groups who have accepted invitations to perform. Included on the list of 40 groups was the marching band from Alabama's oldest private, historically black liberal arts college, Talladega College.

While officials from the college have not yet addressed the performance publicly, the band's expected participation has sparked debate on social media websites. (NPR's calls and messages to Talladega and to the chairman of the college's board went unanswered.)

One user on bandhead.org wrote, "It's a Presidential Inauguration, a high profile event. It's a great experience for the band." Another posted, "All exposure isn't good exposure."

Talladega's participation comes after other marching bands, including the band from Howard, a historically black university in Washington, D.C., did not apply to perform. Washington, D.C., high school bands are also not participating.

Though Howard's band director John Newson told NBC4 that Howard's "band had too few members and was facing budgetary constraints," he implied other considerations may have contributed to the decision. NBC4 reported:

[Newson] said he suspects that many band directors' and school administrators' political beliefs played into whether they applied to participate in the parade.

"I think everybody knows why and no one wants to say and lose their job," Newson said.

Nikky Finney, who graduated from Talladega in 1979 and is now a poet and chair in creative writing and southern studies at the University of South Carolina, condemned the band's participation in the inaugural parade. She said:

The news that Talladega College has forgotten its steady and proud 150 years of history, by making the decision to not stand in solidarity with other clear-eyed and courageous people, academic institutions, and organizations, protesting the inauguration of one of the most antagonistic, hatred-spewing, unrepentant racists, has simply and unequivocally broken my heart today. Historical Black colleges are duty bound to have and keep a moral center and be of great moral consciousness while also teaching its students lessons about life that they will need going forward, mainly, that just because a billionaire — who cares nothing about their 150 years of American existence — invites them to a fancy, gold-plated, dress-up party, they have the moral right and responsibility to say "no thank you," especially when the blood, sweat, and tears and bodies, of black, brown, and native people are stuffed in the envelope alongside the RSVP.

This should have been a teachable moment for the President of Talladega College instead it has become a moment of divisiveness and shame. Bags of money and the promise of opportunity have always been waved in front of the faces and lives of struggling human beings, who have historically been relegated to the first-fired and the last-hired slots of life. It has been used to separate us before. It has now been used to separate us again.

Other performers, including Elton John and Celine Dion, have turned down invitations to participate in inauguration ceremonies as well. Several others have said they wouldn't perfom either. The BBC reported that Grammy-winner John Legend said, "Creative people tend to reject bigotry and hate. We tend to be more liberal-minded. When we see somebody that's preaching division and hate and bigotry, it's unlikely he'll get a lot of creative people that want to be associated with him."

On Monday, British singer Rebecca Ferguson said she was invited to sing at the inauguration. She said she would accept if she could sing "Stange Fruit," the lyrics of which describe the lynchings of black people in the the U.S. Originally a poem written by Abel Meeropol, the protest song includes the line: "Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze."

NPR's email to to the Presidential Inaugural Committee has not yet been returned.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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