A near half-century wrong was made right Saturday.
The 1969 senior class of all-black Pike County Consolidated High School, denied their high school diplomas by school district leaders for conducting a peaceful march to protest discriminatory desegregation policies, received the coveted pieces of paper during a festive two-hour ceremony.
“Thank you!” said graduate Sarah King, lifting a large envelope containing her diploma, to the audience.
The engineer of Saturday’s ceremony was Geneva Woods, who had taught at the school those decades ago. Last year, she met with the school district’s current superintendent, Michael Duncan, and told him about the situation. Duncan talked to school board members, who signed a resolution in November to give the students, now in their 60s, their diplomas.
Forty-three men and women were on the program to receive their diplomas before an audience of about 400 people inside the Pike County Auditorium. The ceremony felt part church revival, part family reunion as everyone seemed to know someone and old nicknames were yelled as some received their diplomas.
For some, Saturday was bittersweet. Thirteen members of the class of 1969 are deceased. Family members and friends picked up their diplomas.
“We never expected this to happen,” graduate Samuel Starks, 66, said after the ceremony. “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.”
Despite not having diplomas, some of the students attended college. Others became entrepreneurs and community leaders. Starks, who spoke during Saturday’s ceremony, signed up for the U.S. Navy before graduation and owns a 18-wheeler. Employers never asked if he had a diploma.
For decades, African-American students, from kindergarten to 12th grade, were housed under the single roof of Pike County Consolidated in Concord, located about 50 miles south of downtown Atlanta. Students there were upset about the way desegregation was being handled in their community. With integration of the all-white Pike County High School, the school district’s superintendent decided that he would not renew the annual contracts for any of the teachers or administrators in the black school, former students said.
On a sunsplashed Monday morning in April 1969, the seniors began a silent walkout. Many students from other grades followed. Police and sheriff’s deputies followed them.
“Yes, we walked through the valley of the shadow of death, but we feared no evil,” Starks said in his remarks to the audience.
The entire senior class was barred from graduation as punishment.
For years, the Class of ‘69 were teased for not having diplomas, Starks said. On Saturday, Duncan called them civil rights leaders.
“The world is celebrating what the Lord has called you to do,” Pastor Janet Ware told the audience.
One speaker urged the graduates to share their story with young people.
Several graduates said they don’t regret their decision to march. Hazel Colquitt, the mistress of ceremonies, noted the class motto was “A winner never quits and a quitter never wins.”
“I bet you never knew you would be living (that motto),” she told Georgia’s newest high school graduates.