Haggins emphasizes common goals in MLK Day address

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Jan. 17—Editor's note: The following article has been changed from its original version to correctly identify a former Sunset Elementary School principal, Bill Christopher.

MOULTRIE, Ga. — People working toward a common goal can overcome their divisions, including racial ones, according to the keynote speaker at Moultrie's Martin Luther King birthday celebration, held virtually on Monday due to continued coronavirus concerns.

Jerome Haggins was the first African-American student at Sunset Elementary School before going on to a distinguished career in the U.S. Army. His recorded address was part of the 34th annual commemoration of King's birthday, sponsored by the Women's Federated Club and Southwest Georgia Bank, which is now a division of The First Bank.

Before Haggins described his experiences at Sunset, he set the stage with a discussion of the 1960s, when much of the Civil Rights Movement's success was realized. He started with the Space Race between the Soviet Union and the United States.

In 1961, the Soviet Union put the first man into space, Yuri Gagarin. In February 1962, American astronaut John Glenn launched, orbited the globe and returned safely to earth. Behind the scenes, three Black women — Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan — were among the mathematicians working the equations that helped guide Glenn's spacecraft through its mission.

Haggins said the women — subjects of the book and movie "Hidden Figures" — fought headwinds first because they were women in a man's world, but also because they were Black. But they were needed to reach the common goal of launching Glenn and bringing him back to earth.

Haggins called it "civic nationalism," a nationalism that brings people together, as opposed to "ethnic nationalism," which divides people.

"The government knew these women had skills to support the national cause," he said.

Johnson, Jackson and Vaughan worked in secrecy. The book about their experiences was published in 2016 with the movie released the following January. Haggins implied King knew about them, but even if he didn't, he knew of people like them — Black people who were every bit as smart and skillful as white people. Haggins said people like that were on King's mind when he gave his "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963.

"That speech turned the March on Washington from a gathering and a protest into a crusade," Haggins said.

In the wake of the speech, President Lyndon Johnson proposed and Congress passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, the Voting Rights Act in 1965 and the Fair Housing Act in 1968.

Meanwhile, in Moultrie, the local NAACP chapter was protesting like others around the country, Haggins said, and in 1966, the Colquitt County school superintendent and school board proposed a voluntary integration at some of the local elementary schools. Haggins' parents enrolled him at Sunset Elementary because it was close to where they lived on Tallokas Road.

He was the only African-American student there, he said, and Louise Palms joined the staff that year as the only Black teacher.

"I think we both were happy to see each other," Haggins said.

To start with, the integration wasn't pleasant. Other kids called him names, pointed and snickered. No one dared to sit with him on the bus.

"For me, civil rights and the Civil Rights Movement were on the school bus, the playground and the classroom," he said.

But he had kind words for his principal, Bill Christopher.

"I don't remember what he said in his office during my enrollment," Haggins said, "but I remember how he made me feel: surreal, tranquil and untroubled."

Crystal suggested Haggins try out for the football team. Haggins said he and his father were the only Black people in the stadium for the first game. Haggins scored most of the touchdowns and the Sunset team won — and went on to have a winning season.

"Immediately things changed. ... We had found a shared interest," he said, "winning football games."

He said the students at Sunset were cheerful, jubilant and tolerant, in part because he showed he could contribute to the common goal.

Haggins warned, though, that elements of King's dream are in jeopardy, threatened by unfair voting laws, gerrymandering and tax laws that protect the wealthy at the expense of the poor.

"We're being told what we hear with our ears and what we see with our eyes aren't real," he said.

He urged his listeners to teach their children how to succeed, especially financial literacy, but also the trials that their parents and grandparents overcame because they may have to overcome those trials too.

"It's not just 'Free at last,' as if the fight is over," he said. "It's free to last because the fight will continue."

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