Albany Police Department Lt. James Williams, left, accepts a honorary degree posthumously on behalf of his mother, Bette Slater Williams, from Albany State University President Everette Freeman during Saturday’s commencement exercises at the Albany Civic Center.
ALBANY — They were expelled in 1961. Fifty years later, they were honored Saturday with degrees from Albany State University.
Known as the “Class of 1961” for the year they were expelled, 32 received honorary bachelor degrees at ASU’s fall commencement. They joined the 435 students receiving their degrees through traditional academic achievement.
The 32 students were expelled because they had been arrested. At that time, standing up for civil rights against the prevailing segregation laws led to jail.
After 50 years, some of the expelled students had died. Relatives such as the son of Bette Slater Williams accepted the degree on the graduates’ behalf. They were also awarded a medallion that read, “Civil Rights Soldier.”
“My mother was pregnant with little old me when she was taken to jail for protesting,” said Albany Police Department Lt. James Williams. “I went to jail with my mother and it turned out that I’ve been with the police for the last 29 years.”
Williams said his mother returned to Albany State in 1964 to earn a degree and spent 30 years teaching in the Dougherty County School System. Many others in the 1961 class went on to earn degrees and launch careers.
One was Andrew Williams, James Williams’ uncle, a math major at Moorehouse College. Andrew Williams entered the U.S. Air Force and earned a masters degree as an aerospace engineer.
“We stood up and got arrested for civil rights,” Andrew Williams said. “For that we got expelled. Getting this degree is an honor for doing the right thing.”
Everette Freeman, ASU’s president, called the awarding of honorary degrees “historic.” It was the first time that such a large number of honorary degrees had been allowed by the University System of Georgia Board of Regents.
The year-long effort to have the degrees approved for presentation was undertaken by the ASU Student Government Association, the faculty and the administration.
Traditional 2011 graduate in computer science Dominique Johnson said, “It is beautiful to have them here with us. They made it possible for us to have our civil rights. They deserve to be honored.”
Commencement speaker Bernice Johnson Reagon, a class of 1961 member, was also honored with a doctorate degree. The Albany State expulsion didn’t stop her. She went on to a bachelors in history from Spelman College and a doctorate from Howard University.
“We didn’t go out to grab glory,” Reagon said, “but we did it because it needed doing.”