The band has marched for every president since Dwight Eisenhower, a tradition that transcends politics, band director Don Ryder told The Associated Press. He said the Pride of the Southland band applied to participate in the inaugural parade in October, before the presidential election, and the trip “isn’t about politics at all.”
Ryder said participation is voluntary, but “nobody” said they didn’t want to go because of Trump.
“We would be going regardless of who was going to be there. It’s a march for democracy. It’s about doing it for the tradition and giving these kids an opportunity. I even asked the question, ‘How many of you have never been to Washington, DC?‘ And, the hands went up. They’re going to see things they’ve only seen on television.”
A petition posted on Change.org urged the band to pull out, saying that marching would risk the university’s reputation and credibility.
“As either proud residents of Tennessee or proud University of Tennessee alumni, we are greatly disturbed by the behavior exhibited by Donald Trump both during and after the recent presidential campaign,” the petition said. “He has made racist and sexist remarks that should never come out of the mouth of someone in public office.”
More than 300 band members left the University of Tennessee, Knoxville campus for Washington on Wednesday, including Tanner Rowell, a trumpet player from Sevierville, Tenn.
“It’s not a celebration of politics. It’s not a celebration about being Republican or Democrat. It’s about the peaceful transition of power between one leader and the next,” said Rowell, 21. “It is one of the most amazing experiences of my life.”
The band has marched in inaugural parades more times than any other civic group in the U.S., Ryder said.
Before returning to Tennessee on Saturday, band members plan to tour Washington and meet with Rep. Jimmy Duncan (R-Knoxville) and Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.).