Albany State Awards Honorary Degrees to 32 Students Expelled for 1961 Protests

Henri Cohen and Opal Jones were originally set to graduate from Albany State College. Instead, they were among dozens of Black students arrested and ultimately expelled from the school in 1961 for defying the status quo.

The legal charge was disturbing the peace for trying to buy bus tickets at the Whites-only counter. The expulsions were for conduct unbecoming a student.

Fifty years later, and for the first time in Georgia history, the state’s university system bestowed 32 honorary degrees at a single university, what is now called Albany State University, during a single commencement.

“We all benefit from the courage and selflessness of those young people,” said Albany State President Everette Freeman. “Remember, they were, in every respect, just kids, and yet they were willing to risk everything for a just America.”

The movement that led to the expulsions began in 1959 with a three-person impromptu sit-in at an Albany drive-in restaurant. Among them was Annette Jones, who later became Miss Albany State College. She lost her crown and a scholarship after being expelled, but Annette Jones, now Jones White, said her focus was just doing the right thing.

“By the time I was ready to demonstrate, I didn’t think about being expelled, losing the scholarship, what the president might think of me,” she said. “… It was superficial in light of all of the other things that were more pressing.”

Freeman said when he became president of Albany State, an HBCU, in 2005, he knew he wanted to honor the Albany Movement students for the 50th anniversary. At the December commencement, 16 men and 16 women were present or represented to receive their degrees, not just for their 1960s activities but for their contributions since then. The university couldn’t contact either the student or a family member of the remaining eight.

Each honorary bachelor’s degree had this phrase imprinted on the degree: “To restore justice among the groves of the academe.”

Bernice Johnson Reagon, the commencement speaker and one of the expelled protesters, received an honorary doctorate. Reagon, founder and member of the a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, also has worked as a music consultant, a composer and performer and is a noted historian and Smithsonian curator. Reagon said the civil rights movement was transitional for her becoming an intellectual scholar.

“All around me,” she said, “people were getting arrested, beaten, losing their jobs. I thought those of us who were fighting the legal system would have to pay the consequences. I was so clear that I was going to walk this particular journey. There were quite a few of us who were not deterred. We just kept looking for ways to help push and build a movement in southwest Georgia.”

Reagon and Jones White, like many students, experienced discrimination and prejudice before going to college and had followed the events in the news. The movement, they said, actually occurred inside them before they ever acted, and while they came from different backgrounds, they each found strong role models in their parents and teachers, and others in the movement. One man the students didn’t hold in high regard in 1961 was the university’s president, William Dennis. He made the decision to expel the students. Freeman said Dennis likely faced extreme pressure from “supporters of the status quo.”

Early in 1961, Dennis had demanded the students stop participating in civil rights activities and warned them that the college would not condone their participation in the Southern Student Sit-In Movement. Jones White also said she received veiled threats that she would not be crowned Miss Albany State unless she gave up information about protest meetings.

She and the other students were not deterred. The Interstate Commerce Commission ruling mandated desegregation of the bus facility, and they were determined to test it.

“He had to weigh the continued existence of the institution as an institution with the rights of the students,” said Freeman. “That’s a tough, tough decision for anyone to make in 2012, and that was 50 years ago. Lynching was common still. We were just five years out of the Montgomery bus boycott.… So, I don’t have any grief with President Dennis. He was in a very tough time in a very tough town.”

After being expelled, the majority of the former students went to other schools, many to other HBCUs on scholarships solicited by parents. Both Reagon and Jones White graduated from Spelman College.

One member of what Albany State calls the Class of ’61 Pioneers became a judge, several went into government service and many became educators. Many continued in the movement, some continuing with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Neither Henri Cohen, who ultimately got her degree from Albany State, nor Opal Jones lived to receive the school’s recognition. Their families, and those of 10 other classmates, received their posthumous degrees.

“It was more than the degree,” said Jones White. “It was the fact that Albany State was saying, ‘We’re sorry. We were wrong. You were right. Welcome back.’ ”