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Local Civil Rights heroes honored
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Two Newton County Civil Rights leaders stood on the steps of the historic courthouse to be recognized for their contributions to Newton County history.

Newton County Board of Commissioner J.C. Henderson stood with Forrest Sawyer and Anthony Shy outside of the historic courthouse to have their photo taken, after the two men were presented with plaques honoring them as Newton Civil Rights heroes in February.

Sawyer and Shy were honored for their involvement in the 1970s Civil Rights marches, a time when blacks were marching for equality in the Newton County School System as well as a number of other places within the county.

When integration of the county’s public school system became mandatory in 1969 as the result of a successful U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit against the state, the Newton County School System was forced to begin planning for full system integration for the fall of 1970.

The Newton County Board of Education decided to adopt a "7-5" desegregation plan which would consist of seven years of elementary school and five years of high school, give "freedom of choice" for elementary schools, would phase out the all-black Washington Street Elementary School and have a teacher ratio of two white teachers to one black teacher. The R.L. Cousins High School was to become a satellite campus of the then all-white Newton County High School and would house the eighth and ninth grades while NCHS housed 10th through 12th grades.

After rumors spread in late February 1970 that black teachers and administrators at R.L. Cousins would be let go once the school was integrated, around 500 Cousins students spontaneously decided to walk out of class on Feb. 27 and march on the Board of Education.

Sawyer along with Richard Johnson — another Civil Rights activist in Newton County — quickly became involved in leading the students’ protests, being that the students had no adult leaders.

According to Covington News archives, student leaders presented the BOE with a list of seven demands including a demand for a black supervising principal at Cousins, that Cousins not be absorbed into NCHS but remain a separate entity with its own name, school colors and mascot intact. The students rejected a compromise offered by the BOE that Cousins be renamed "The R.L. Cousins Division of the Newton County High School System."

Cousins’ students, joined by their parents and grandparents, marched on the Covington Square throughout March. While the vast majority of Civil Rights protesters were black, some white residents, especially white students at Oxford College, also took part in the protests.

Sawyer gazed at the stone stairs where he stood as recollected the past. He moved toward the town square sidewalk.

"Right about there," Sawyer said, "is where I was arrested in the 1970 protest march."

Six of the Civil Rights leaders central to the movement were jailed without bond by then Newton County Sheriff Henry Odum on the charges of contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

Sawyer, Johnson and Newton County resident Joe Lightfoot were all jailed for 45 days along with Southern Christian Leadership Conference organizers Leon Walker, Tyrone Brooks and Lloyd Jackson. The group became widely known as "The Newton 6."

Shy was a teenager when he helped organize the march. He was concerned about the treatment of black students in Covington. He first went to a white school official to discuss his concerns — and to this day he winces when he recalls how rudely he was treated.

"He didn’t see us as human beings; when I think of that moment in his office, I can still feel the hurt I felt then as if all these years hadn’t elapsed," Shy said.

Shy explained what it was like to have Sawyer participate in the 1970 march and why he was influential to the students.

"The police started at the front of the line and worked their way back with the handcuffs," Shy said remembering the day. "Forrest Sawyer was right out front. All of us kids called him the Motivator because he walked alongside us, shouting encouragement through a bullhorn."

Sawyer and other Civil Rights leaders gave the protest the necessary support and logistical skill. Sawyer smiled as he remembered Hosea Williams, one in Martin Luther King Jr.’s inner circle, arriving in Covington to take his place in the march.

Both Sawyer and Shy now have a plaque to symbolize the appreciation of their courage and efforts to create a better place for all.

Henderson said he hopes the honors will become a Black History Month tradition in the county.