When Donald Trump takes the oath of office on Friday, Shylexis Robinson will lend a hand with the festivities. She plays the clarinet in the Talladega College marching band, which has accepted an invitation to perform in the inaugural parade.
“I think it’s an honor,” she told a reporter at the school’s campus in central Alabama.
Every four years, the inauguration promises a national audience to performers lucky enough to land a spot. But this time, an unusual number of singers and groups are taking a pass. In December, the Monitor reported that opera singer Andrea Bocelli cancelled his performance after intense criticism. Members of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Rockettes have done likewise.
The critics pressuring these musicians to avoid this year's inauguration come from many quarters. But civil rights groups are especially concerned about the president-elect’s stance on racial issues. In a statement released after the election, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People vowed to “fight back against any attempt to roll back hard-won civil and human rights advances.”
But students and administrators at Talladega College, a historically black school, are choosing to look past politics. They see the band’s upcoming trip to Washington as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
"Ninety-nine percent of these students have never stepped foot in the nation’s capital," Talladega College president Billy Hawkins told AL.com. “Every one of these students are American citizens ... they have a right to be a part of this historic ceremony,”
The trip to Washington promises to broaden the horizons of many band members. As 57 percent of Talladega students receive federal Pell Grants, which support low-income students, the band started a GoFundMe campaign to raise $75,000 for travel expenses.
The inaugural parade offers a chance for student musicians from disadvantaged backgrounds to gain exposure. President Obama’s second inauguration in 2013 featured bands from Grambling State University, a historically black school in Louisiana, as well as Ballou Senior High School in inner-city Washington, DC.
Other schools like these have taken a pass on the Trump inauguration. DC’s NBC affiliate reported that no band in the district had applied to play. Historically black Howard University, also in the city, performed in George W. Bush’s second inauguration but declined to apply this year.
None of these schools explicitly linked their decisions to Mr. Trump’s stance on racial attitudes, but the president-elect has faced repeated criticism for his statements about minorities and his refusal to disavow white supremacist supporters.
During the campaign, Trump drew sharp criticism from minority groups after saying, “African-Americans and Hispanics are living in hell,” and that “African-American communities are absolutely in the worst shape they've ever been in.”
Before that, Trump espoused “birther” theories that claimed without basis that President Obama had been born outside the country.
For some, those actions should rule out Talladega’s participating. “The idea that a college that has long stood for civil rights would celebrate and normalize a man who got elected denigrating the first African-American president really is appalling,” Carl Singley, a 1968 Talladega graduate and civil rights activist, told the New York Times.
Singley also speculated that many Trump supporters had given to the band’s GoFundMe campaign to prove they were not racists. As of Saturday morning, the band had collected nearly $355,000 – many times their original target.
But whatever the motives of those who gave, Talladega’s students are willing to look past Trump’s politics for the chance to perform. As explained by Shylexis Robinson, the clarinetist who considers the invitation an "honor," "We don't normally get to go to events like this.”