Paine College’s Class of 1970 Returns Forty Years Later to Participate in Commencement Exercises

Posted by ncarter | 04/27/2011 15:28 PM

Paine College will recognize the Class of 1970 during its 129th Commencement Convocation on Sunday, May 1, 2011 at 9:00 a.m. in the William Bell Auditorium located in Augusta, Georgia.  The Honorable James E. Clyburn, Assistant Democratic Leader in the 112th Congress, will address the Class of 2011, the Golden Class of 1961, and the Class of 1970.

The Class of 1970 was unable to participate in the College’s Commencement exercise more than 40 years ago due to the May 1970 Augusta race riot that was sparked by the death of a sixteen year-old youth whose cries went unheard in a county jail.  The brutal murder of the sixteen year old was followed by protests which resulted in the deaths of six black men during the riots.  Dr. E. Clayton Calhoun, President of Paine College, and faculty voted to safeguard the students and moved to temporarily close its doors.  The graduating seniors never experienced a formal Commencement exercise and received their diplomas via regular mail service.

According to Paine College Historian, Dr. Mallory Millender, the National Guard surrounded the campus during the race riots.  Some of the students were taunted by members of the community for their refusal to participate in retaliatory acts against whites. Many of the students did not trust the National Guard that was sent by Governor Lester Maddox to protect the campus community.  It was the general consensus that the National Guard was sent to ‘contain’ and not protect the faculty and students.  Thus, Paine College students armed themselves with guns to protect themselves and their fellow classmates.  Alice Miller Simpkins, Class of 1970, a member of the Paine College Concert Choir, recalled her return to the campus after being away on tour.  She stated, “As we approached the campus, the bus driver instructed us to lower our heads. He drove on to the campus and parked very close to our residence halls.  Before we were allowed to disembark, Paine students armed with rifles entered the bus while others surrounded the bus to stand guard.  The armed students escorted us to our dormitories.”

1970 was the year that 100,000 people demonstrated in Washington, DC against the Vietnam War.  Tragically, it was the same year in which after a number of days of protest against the U.S. invasion of Cambodia, the National Guard fired on and killed four student protesters at Kent State University and injured ten others on May 4, 1970.   President Calhoun and faculty feared that a similar tragedy would occur on the campus of a small Black College.

Elizabeth Bentley Simpson, Class of 1970, recalled the tumultuous time that led to the closing of her Alma Mater just days prior the Commencement Convocation. “We understood that the College closed out of the concern and safety for the students,” stated Elizabeth.  We witnessed man’s inhumanity to man and the most troubling factor was that the racial tensions and hatred for one another carried forth from generation to generation.  The Class of 1970 and other students learned from the experience and I believe that we emerged stronger.  We knew we were going to experience racism and bigotry and knowing that caused us to work harder.”     

Dr. George C. Bradley, fourteenth President of Paine College, commented, “The Class of 1970 and so many other students stood for equality and social justice for mankind.  Paine College students had been at the forefront of social justice issues for many years prior the 1970 race riots.”

Historians have credited Paine College students, a strong coalition of blacks and whites, and organizations such as the NAACP, with desegregating the city of Augusta in 1960.  The student movement in Augusta officially began with Paine College students who in defiance of Jim Crow policies, staged sit-ins at local restaurants; drank from water fountains that were labeled “White Only”; and were arrested and jailed for disorderly conduct for their refusal to adhere to Jim Crow laws. 

In 1960, Paine College students staged a peaceful protest as they sat down in the front sections of the city buses in the segregated city of Augusta.  The students refused to leave their seats when demanded by the bus drivers.  Police arrested eleven of the students.  Later, the courts found the students guilty of disorderly conduct and fined them $45 each.  On August 9, five students from Paine College (Henry Taylor, Thomas Snowden, William Chambers, Jimmy Dukes and Silas Norman) filed a suit in the U.S. District Court.  The case, Taylor v. City of Augusta, sought to eliminate Jim Crow seating on city buses.  The Paine students asked the courts to recognize the illegality of the seating policy and sought an injunction against the city of Augusta to prohibit such seating. In 1962, two years after the students filed the initial suit, the federal judges sided with the plaintiffs.

Dr. Bradley cited that Paine College had a history of being an advocate for social justice.  “Paine College students were instrumental in desegregating city buses in Augusta and their actions led to a legal precedent for the state of Georgia.  It has been ever-present in the DNA of Paine College to stand tall for justice and equality.  It is appropriate that we invite the Class of 1970 to participate in the College’s Commencement exercises, an event that symbolizes a milestone in academic and scholarly excellence.  They were not afforded this honor due in 1970 and therefore it is fitting that we invite them to experience a formal Commencement exercise.”

Of note, the Paine College faculty issued a statement entitled “When America’s Dream is Denied” in the Augusta Chronicle Newspaper to the citizens of Augusta on May 18, 1970.  In an excerpt from the full-paged statement, the faculty offered the Paine College facilities and personnel as a clearing-house for efforts to establish better communication between the various groups within the community.  The faculty also recommended peaceful solutions and urged the community to address economic and social injustices.

The public is invited to attend the Commencement Convocation and meet the Class of 1970 and celebrate the accomplishments of the Class of 2011.  For more information, please contact the Office of Communications and Marketing at 706.396.7591, Ncarter@paine.edu, or visit www.paine.edu. 

Augusta, GA- For more information, contact Natasha Carter at 706.396.7591 or 678.215.8576 or Ncarter@paine.edu. 


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