After 49 years, these high school graduates have finally been given the diplomas they deserved.
Dozens of Georgia students, who were barred from their graduation ceremony in 1969 for joining protests and marches in the civil rights movement, were honored over the weekend at the Pike County Auditorium outside of Atlanta.
"It's something that I've waited for and dreamed about for a long, long time,” Milton Clowers, one of the students, told Fox 5 Atlanta, calling the ceremony an “unbelievable” experience.
The students, now in their 60s, were enrolled at the all-black Pike County Consolidated school in 1969 and were upset about the way desegregation was being handled in their town.
Under a state mandate, the Concord school was ordered to integrate with the all-white Pike County High School in a town over, but the district’s then-superintendent decided not to renew the contracts of any of the teachers or staff in the black school, former students told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Among those contracts were D. F. Glover's, the school’s beloved principal.
The students began a silent walkout in April 1969 and were later told, as punishment, that they would not be able to graduate because they had too many absences for participating in the ensuing demonstrations.
They went on to attend college and become entrepreneurs and community leaders, but for decades, never had a diploma to show for their high school education.
“As the result of their participation in the boycott, those twelfth-grade students from Pike County Consolidated High School who were on track for graduation were prevented from receiving their diplomas and whereas we honor all of those students, families and educators who struggled through those turbulent times, we recognize that the lens of history allows us to acknowledge that prohibiting a student to graduate under similar circumstances would not be consistent with practices in place today,” the district’s board of education said in a resolution.
Geneva Woods, a former teacher at the school, spearheaded the Saturday graduation ceremony after meeting with the school district’s current superintendent last year.
Forty-three men and women received their diplomas in front of an audience of around 400, including family members and friends who picked up the documents on behalf of 13 deceased classmates, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.
“We never expected this to happen,” graduate Samuel Starks, 66, told the newspaper, noting that he and his classmates were teased for years for never having the diplomas. “It feels good to have all of this support. We were 16 and 17 when we walked out of school and didn’t have none of this support.”
Matthew Duncan, the current superintendent, also hailed the students as civil rights leaders.
Woods, who went on to teach at the integrated school and retired in 1996 after a 38-year career, said she “was just in bed one night and I couldn’t sleep and I prayed to ask God what I can do for my students that I hadn’t already done.
“These students deserve their diplomas,” she told the Pike County Journal-Reporter. “Most of them became productive citizens anyway despite the fact that they didn’t have their high school diplomas. I just wanted to see that they got them. I loved all my students. I believe I was called to teach.”