NEW MARKET, Tenn. - Authorities in Tennessee are working to determine the cause of a fire last week that destroyed a social justice center known for hosting iconic civil rights leaders.
The Highlander Research and Education Center said that their main office was burned down Friday morning, and a "symbol connected to the white power movement" was found spray-painted in the parking lot.
Jefferson County Sheriff Jeff Coffey confirmed that the graffiti, which he described as a "hashtag symbol," was discovered at the scene Friday.
"It's not a traditional, throw-it-in-your-face symbol that you would immediately recognize," Coffey told the Knoxville News Sentinel. "But it has been used by individuals in the past. We have seen this symbol associated with different groups."
"It feels clear that the reason that you would put a symbol is so that people would know who it was," Highlander Director Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson told WBIR. "So we're being intentional about that information."
"While we do not know the names of the culprits, we know that the white power movement has been increasing and consolidating power across the South, across this nation, and globally," the Highlander Center said in a statement Tuesday. "Since 2016, the white power movement has become more visible, and we’ve seen that manifest in various ways, both subtle and overt."
"It's been devastating to show up and see our building burned down to the ground," Henderson said. "What's real is that a sacred space has been violated, and I think that there's a lot of grief that people here and people all over the world that love Highlander are feeling right now."
The Highlander Center said that nobody was injured in the fire, but decades worth of historical documents, speeches, artifacts and memorabilia were destroyed.
Highlander played a critical role during the Civil Rights Movement, helping to organize the Montgomery bus boycott and hosting civil rights icons such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, according to the center's website.
The Jefferson County Sheriff's Office said they are working with state bomb and arson agents to determine the cause of the fire.
Watch WBIR's report below:
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