Albany State University recently conferred honorary degrees on more than two dozen former students who were expelled from the college in 1961 for their participation in civil rights activities.
The move climaxed a yearlong celebration at ASU of Albany’s place on the map as an important stop in the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
“For doing the right thing, they were expelled,” Lee Formwalt, executive director of the Albany Civil Rights Institute, told The Albany Herald. “On the one hand, I’m delighted that they’re finally recognized and paid this tribute. But on the other hand, why did it take 50 years for this to happen?”
Southern communities that were civil rights “hotbeds” in the torrid period of a half-century ago have been notoriously slow to make amends for wrongs committed back then.
I know: I grew up in one of them and have recently written a book that recalls similar activities. “Hometown” is a remembrance of four long years of civil rights unrest in McComb, Miss., a place whose trademark went from “Camellia City of America” to “Dynamite Capital of the World” in a matter of weeks in early 1964. (Shameless ad: See websites that sell books.)
I’ll spare you the details of the fire bombings, except to say that more than a dozen black homes and churches were dynamite victims of the Ku Klux Klan that year. Through an act of God, no one was killed, but much physical damage occurred.
Three years earlier, as happened at ASU, about two dozen students at McComb’s all-black Burglund High School were expelled for sit-ins and walkouts. I tell how a white man from the other side of town helped McComb right that ship.
In 2006, an event conferred degrees on the students expelled from Burglund High. There, in a highly noble act of generosity, my high school buddy, Randall O’Brien, whose father toiled with mine at the Enterprise-Journal newspaper, presented one of them, Brenda Travis, with the Bronze Star he had earned in Vietnam as a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne.
O’Brien rushed to the event from his executive post at Baylor University in Texas. “I had something to give Brenda; I had something to say to her,” said O’Brien, a former Southern Baptist preacher who now leads a small Baptist college in Tennessee. Randall told Travis — whom he had never met — how, as a McComb youth, he watched the city’s racial turbulence with dismay. He said he wanted to honor her courage with something of importance to him.
“A few years after your civil rights battles for our country,” Randall told Brenda, “I fought for our country on a different battlefield. Sometimes in an imperfect world, a person might need to fight for his country. But no one should ever have to fight her country. For my service in Vietnam, I was awarded the Bronze Star.
“For your gallantry, Brenda, you were awarded reform school and cruel exile from your family and home state. You were so many times more heroic than I ever was. I want you to have my Bronze Star, Brenda, for your heroism. You already have my heart and my admiration.”
Wrongs can be righted, even 45 years too late.
Mac Gordon is a retired reporter who lives near Blakely and writes an occasional opinion column for The Albany Herald.