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Class of 1969 celebrates special graduation

In an emotional and historic graduation ceremony that emphasized faith, hope and love, 43 members of the Pike County Consolidated High School Class of 1969 finally received the diplomas they had earned 49 years before. Sadly, thirteen students had passed away. Speakers and students shared the story of how they decided to silently leave the classroom in a peaceful protest. Many expressed appreciation for the commencement exercises held for the Class of 1969 on March 3, 2018. ’I never thought I’d be here. It’s a very exciting day and I have my wife, kids and grandkids here to share it with me,’ said graduate Eddie Flemister. Senior spokesperson Mildred Favors Dixon addressed the students, encouraging them to hold onto the faith that their actions can change the world and asking them to love each other and always do what is right. She said happiness adds and multiplies as it is divided with others. ’Most graduates are told to go out and make your marks on the world. All of us had to do so and we have no regrets but we had to make our marks without a diploma. We believe now as we believed then that we made the right decision to express our discontentment with the school for not renewing our principal and teachers’ contracts. We felt an injustice to one was an injustice to all. Little did we know that we would be part of a movement that would change the world. Some of us went to college, some of us went to work and some of us went into the Armed Forces but against all odds, we made our marks in this world.’ Daisy Anderson Harris read a graduation address written by PCCHS’ principal in 1968, D.F. Glover. In it, he emphasized that blacks were not truly free in society. ’For 350 years, black man has been struggling to be free in the United States,’ he wrote. ‘I don’t believe in violence and hate but the truth is the black man must be free.’ Dennis Glover, the son of the late PCCHS principal was present and asked to speak. ’I’m sure he’d really be proud of what’s going on,’ he said. ‘I’m just amazed at how many people he touched and what you students did for him during that time.’ Beulah Owens, a 1958 graduate of PCCHS and the head coach for the state championship girls basketball team in 1968, spoke to the students. She said she did not return to the school as a teacher in 1969 since she had been told the school was hiring a new basketball coach and she would have to watch from the sidelines. ’I commend you for your conviction, for your refusal to give up what was right. You were not only marching for your principal but because you were not able to decide any issues regarding the integration of the school – not the name of the school, where it would be located, not one word was allowed. You were marching for that fact that your voices were not being heard. Class of 1969 graduate Sammy Starks told the story of the day the fateful march took place. ’It was in April on a Monday, a beautiful sunshiny day when we decided to walk out of the classroom. We didn’t tell our parents what we were going to do because they wouldn’t have let us come to school. We did it in silence. Nobody said a word. As we left and looked around, we saw that the whole school was with us from twelfth to first grade. We knew the Lord was our light and the strength of our determination. As we walked, there was an army of state troopers, sheriff’s deputies and police officers who surrounded us. We never said a word and we never stopped walking. Yes, we walked through the valley of the shadow of death and we knew his rod and his staff were with us all the way,’ said Starks. ‘We always stood together as a class and we have always been there for each other. We left the school united and we are still united. We left not thinking we were going to end up where we were headed. Many don’t even know the history in our own county. There were people who got beaten, people who got fired and people who lost their lives. Lydia Starks was 9 years old when she died in a house fire. The news media said it was an accident but we all knew the truth. We were living in a society where we did not have any voice and we did what we felt we needed to do that day.’ After the graduation ceremony, Shirley Starks Ali said she was only 15 years old when her sister, Lydia Starks, was killed in a house fire while the rest of the family was at church. ‘From the way the house burned, it was plain to see that it was set on fire,’ she said. Rev. Alfred Davis also shared words of inspiration and his struggles as a student in the 1940s in Pike County. ’I walked five miles to school in 1945 and when the bus would pass me, other students would spit on me and throw rocks at me. But I was determined. Out of six boys, I was the only one who finished high school. I was the only one who was drafted. I was determined,’ he said. ‘I’m proud of you for speaking up, standing up and not looking down.’ Superintendent Dr. Michael Duncan presented the school’s Coin of Distinction to former teacher Geneva Woods for her efforts to ensure that all students from the Class of 1969 who earned the necessary credits would finally receive their diplomas. ’I would be remiss for not taking a moment to thank Mrs. Geneva Woods who is a living example that the best teachers never stop caring about their students,’ said superintendent Dr. Duncan. ‘When someone mentions a Civil Rights leader, most think of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but I’m privileged to be in a room full of Civil Rights leaders. While there is still work to be done, it’s difficult for me to remember the world in which you lived in 1969. Usually commencement speakers share inspiring messages with graduates, but today, you are our inspiration.’ Woods was celebrated throughout the ceremony for her bravery as a teacher and the impact she had on her students and the community. It was also noted that in order to meet integration requirements while keeping most black students at PCCHS, Geneva Woods was the first black teacher in 1969 at Pike County High School and 15 black students were also moved to PCHS that year. ’I call everybody I teach my baby and these are my babies. I think there may be some of my babies in the audience too,’ said Woods as hands raised all across the audience. ‘I love you all and I am proud of you for becoming productive citizens even without your high school diploma. I’m proud of you for doing what you thought you were supposed to do.

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