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History will be kinder to student organizers of walkout than their critics 

No matter the era or the legitimacy of their cause, student protesters are not valued in their own time. 

But history? History is a different story. 

The record will be corrected and their courage will be recognized. One such correction occurred this weekend in Pike County when a graduating class finally received diplomas, nearly a half century after its members finished high school. 

Why were the students denied their diplomas? 

Because they staged a school walkout, as thousands of Georgia students plan to do on March 14 to honor the 17 victims of the school shooting 19 days ago in Florida. The kids organizing the walkout are being vilified, as were the students of the all-black Pike County Consolidated High School in 1969.

For their peaceful protest, everyone in that class was denied a diploma, a wrong rectified at a ceremony this weekend covered by AJC higher education reporter Eric Stirgus. 

As Stirgus reported: 

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. 

The entire senior class was barred from graduation as punishment. 

Teenage organizers of the walkout next week should take heart from what the Pike County students endured. And they should ignore the critics dismissing their efforts. 

Hannah Andress, 17, is organizing the walkout at Lassiter High School in Cobb. “I have been researching this issue and am passionate about what I believe. Students should not have to fear coming to school. These critics aren’t in the schools; they don’t know what it feels like to go into a code red drill.” 

Druid Hills High School senior Lisa Medford, 17, an organizer of her school’s walkout, dismisses those who cast students as unwitting pawns. “I think they are being used by the right. I am not a crisis actor. I care about this. It directly impacts me and other students.” 

Unlike student organizers in other districts who must tiptoe around reluctant administrators, Lisa said Druid Hills teens have the blessing of the principal and teachers for their plans to honor the students killed in Florida, including a ceremony by ROTC members commemorating the Stoneman Douglas cadets shot to death. During the walkout, Druid Hills students will also call for common-sense gun laws and conclude with voter registration for those eligible. 

“The fact we do have the administration on board does not take away the significance of the walkout, although it is almost more of a rally at this point,” Lisa said. “Our administrators and teachers want students to speak and our voices to be heard.” 

While Cobb has warned students of possible disciplinary consequences, Hannah said her principal has been helpful to her. “I think a lot of people mistakenly see this as a polarizing event. It is not a partisan event. Student safety is not a Democratic or Republican issue. We are asking people to support our right to go to school without fear we are going to die.” 

Nor is it accurate to portray the school walkouts as anti-gun, said Hannah. “We are stressing that gun reform could be a possible solution, but there are many other factors. We need better mental health counseling. We need more school resource officers. We need more security measures. It doesn’t boil down to a single solution.” 

Administrators pushing kids to back down may find themselves on the wrong side of history. They only have to look back a generation at the hostility toward students who fought for Civil Rights. Those teens were also told by some to keep quiet and stop acting up. 

Thank goodness, they did not. 

Claudette Colvin was 15 when she refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus; she was inspired to take a stand by school history lessons on Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. After she refused to surrender the seat she paid for, police boarded the bus, put Colvin in handcuffs and dragged her to jail. 

In Phillip Hoose’s book, “Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice,” Colvin recounts her fear of reprisals for her activism, although it was the armed Klan she worried about, not a college rejection letter. 

Her words should inspire Georgia teens facing pressure to remain silent. “But worried or not, I felt proud. I had stood up for our rights. I had done something a lot of adults hadn’t done.”

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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.