In 1963, President John F. Kennedy dealt with issues surrounding peace, both in relationship to the possibility of war with the Soviet Union and at home with the moral crisis of civil rights and segregation.
In a televised speech to the American people, June 11, 1963, Kennedy outlined his plan for civil rights legislation.
“We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution. The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated. If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who will represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?”
On Sept. 17, 1963, three months after Kennedy’s speech to the nation, Valdosta natives Drewnell Thomas and Robert Pierce Jr. led the way for integration at Valdosta State College (VSC).
According to records within the university’s archives, then VSC President J. Ralph Thaxton said that he “discussed the possibility of integration with various civic groups and I believe that we had the field rather prepared for integration when the opening of the college came. An injunction was taken out against me, but very little effort was made to serve injunction paper on me. The students had been registered before they located me. We were threatened with some disorder by a group from Pavo, Ga., and the group did show up on the campus at registration time. However, the presence of a considerable number of state highway patrolmen and some local city police officers discouraged this group from Pavo and they left the campus and there was no disorder of any kind.”
A Valdosta Daily Times article recounting Thaxton’s recollection of the events on Sept. 17, 1963, confirmed the presence of state and local police were visible. However, the article noted, “Seemingly it was just the start of another fall quarter. It was merely a routine beginning for the crowd of fresh faces on the campus.”
Pierce and Thomas settled into their campus routines, and four years later graduated. As they reflect on the past 50 years, they realize that they were more than just two college students.
They played a pivotal role in forging a historical and cultural legacy that continues at Valdosta State University.