A large group gathered in the gymnasium of Higgins Middle School in McComb, Miss. for a ceremony, Thursday, June 22. This graduation was different. There was no buzzing and flittering about. There were very few teenagers dressed in Sunday best. College students eager to start their new lives weren't standing in line, either. Instead, 10 60-somethings dressed in green caps and gowns with gold trim were anxious to receive honorary diplomas.
Forty-five years ago, some 100 students walked off their high-school campus in protest. During this time, the school was named for the community in which it stood, Burglund High School. The students' classmate had been wronged, and they wanted to show their support for her.
In October 1961, 15-year-old Brenda Travis sat in the whites only section of the Greyhound bus station in her hometown of McComb. But Brenda Travis was colored. Alongside her were two others, Ike Lewis and Bobby Talbert, voter registration workers. Travis was arrested and taken to jail, and a $5,000 bond was set.
Though the high schooler's act was a courageous one, instead of pats on the back from her high school, she received a slap in the face. Travis was expelled as a result of protest against social injustice. She was later sent to the state reform school in Oakley, Miss.
Joe Lewis, one of the members of the class of '62, told the story at the podium during the ceremony last week. Back at Travis' high school, her peers had assembled in the gymnasium. As they sat discussing the day's news, their classmate was of particular concern. Because of the policy of the school board, the students assumed that their classmate would be expelled. A group of youngsters sat and prodded a fellow classmate to confirm their assumptions about what would happen to Travis. Her timidity would not allow her to stand and inquire when the principal asked if anyone had questions. At the last call for questions, young Lewis asked, "What's gonna happen to Brenda Travis? Will she be expelled?"
Sunlight shone brightly through the gymnasium window that day, Lewis explained, and because of the glare, the principal couldn't see who'd dared to ask that question. The administrator's response was, "Whoever asked that question, meet me in my office."
The students gathered in the hallway and decided that no one would be going to the office. All 100 or so students walked out quietly, headed to City Hall. They made it to City Hall, but because of their willingness to take a stand, all of these students were expelled.
Of the group, 16 were seniors. These seniors, because of their expulsions, were not allowed to graduate. Further, because of the action they took, they didn't have access to any other public high schools in the state. Jackson's Campbell College took in the ones who wanted to graduate.
Last Thursday night, 10 of the expelled seniors gathered to receive honorary diplomas from their would-have-been alma mater. Before the first graduate, former class president Jerome Byrd, rolled into the gym in his wheelchair leading the way, the gym had an almost indescribable energy. As "Pomp and Circumstance" filled the air, audience members looked at each other as they lit the candle of their neighbors. After the students reached the stage and shared it with current school board members and Brenda Travis herself, Dr. Pat Cooper, superintendent of the McComb School District, asked for a moment of silence in the candlelight.
At Cooper's prompting, Travis, now a resident of California, stood behind the podium to speak, with tissue already in hand.
"I'd like to applaud the students who left this place on my behalf," she said, dabbing her eyes, as she took a moment to look at the former Burglund High School students. "I haven't really had a chance to thank them."
As Travis spoke about societal struggles past and present, interrupted by applause and shouts, she instructed the audience not to applaud, but to continue making efforts for civil justice. Joe Lewis later echoed this sentiment. "We've come a long way," he said. "Look how far we have to go."
Wonderful article and story Natalie. It's heartfelt! Thanks for writing it.
- Ray Carter