After 55 Years of Waiting, Civil Rights Activist Finally Graduates
More than half a century ago, Alva Earley was fighting the fight for equality, and because he decided to take a stand against segregation, he was denied his high-school graduation and diploma. But now, with a little help from his friends, he has finally been given what he should have gotten all that time ago.
In 1959, Alva was a teenager, a senior in high school looking forward to graduating Galesburg High School in Illinois. He attended a picnic with a group of friends, sat down and ate lunch.
While this might sound innocuous enough, shortly after the gathering, when he went to get measured for his graduation cap and gown, Alva was told by his school that he wouldn’t be allowed to graduate or even receive his diploma – all because of a simple act of sitting down and enjoying lunch in the park with friends.
The problem lies in that Alva and his friends were not white, but had decided to dine in the “whites-only” area of the park, in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement.
“[But] we paid city taxes, we paid state taxes, we paid federal taxes,” Alva declared. “Why should we have to be in a dump when we could be in a park that was state-of-the-art?”
Alva and his friends just wanted to send the message that they were people, too, and that they had just as much right to sit where they wanted for lunch as everyone else.
“The fact that I could not get a cap and gown on and march down the aisle with my classmates… I can’t even explain how deeply it hurt,” he said.
Because he didn’t receive his diploma and therefore didn’t officially graduate, two colleges Alva had already been accepted to withdrew their offers. At the time, Alva’s classmate’s father was the president of Knox College and was persuaded to enrol Alva into the college.
After college, Alva went to Chicago-Kent College of Law where he earned both a law degree and a Doctorate in Divinity, and served as an assistant pastor in a church. He also spent time working as an employment benefits attorney for the state of Illinois before retiring and moving to Colorado.
So, despite not graduating, Alva has still been able to do well with his life. But, understandably, that didn’t dissipate any of the anger over the situation, and at a recent Know College reunion, Alva revealed to his former classmates that he had been denied his high-school diploma, and why.
“We were thunderstruck!” said Alva’s former high-school and college classmate Owen Muelder. “Here is this community and college founded before the Civil War, that was a leader in the anti-slavery movement, and here it was that a little over 100 years later, something so outrageous could have occurred in our community.”
Owen and another classmate decided they wanted to do something about it, and so went to see Bart Arthur, superintendent of Galesburg, who looked up Alva’s records and found everything to be in order. “[Alva] had enough credits to graduate,” he explained, “had his transcripts signed and everything.”
Finally, at the age of 73, Alva stood clad in an old graduation gown before almost a hundred of his former classmates and received his high-school diploma. Alva Earley was finally given what was rightfully his and graduated high school.
“It is far beyond anything I have experienced to date,” he said tearfully to the crowd. “I wish I knew where to start. I wish I knew where to end.”