Roy Barnes has seen integration and the advancement in racial equality in Georgia’s schools firsthand, but the Newton High School students he spoke to Thursday weren’t alive for many of those changes.
But Barnes said it was imperative for the young students not to ignore the sacrifice of leaders past.
"Sometimes we believe that the conditions that we have today, the society we have today, were always there. That there was never any before, and that there were never any leaders that changed the societies that we enjoy today," Barnes said.
Barnes said he went to all white schools until he attended the University of Georgia, and even that school had only been integrated three years before. He stressed the importance of the revolution that had taken place in the state’s schools."I have seen the changes that have occurred in education. I remember the words of Frederick Douglass, ‘Once you learn to read you are always free.’ It is the reason that the words that were just spoken a few moments ago, from Martin Luther King Jr, why he was so intent on bringing about full education and equality and access to African-Americans," Barnes said.
The progress that started in the schools has been felt elsewhere, and Barnes lauded two recent groundbreaking political elections.
"Last year, you elected in this county an African-American sheriff for the first time in history. That would have been unthinkable 50 years ago. I will tell you that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago or perhaps as close as 10 years ago. Odds are in this period in time, that we would have a president of the United States, the most powerful man in the world, that was an African-American, was unthinkable just a few years ago. Those things didn’t happen by themselves."
While Martin Luther King Jr. is by far the most prominent historical black American leader, Barnes urged students to remember other black heroes, W.E.B. DuBois, activist; James Weldon Johnson, the author of the black national anthem; Langston Hughes, a famous writer; and Crispus Attucks, the first man killed in the Boston Massacre.
"Don’t ever forget those that went before us. Don’t ever forget those that changed us. Don’t ever forget that we are one people, brought together from all over the world that has built a nation full of hope, full of promise and full of a great future," he said.
At an informal meet and greet before the speech, Principal Dr. Roderick Sams said it was an honor to have someone of Barnes’ stature come to Newton High School to speak about black history.
"He’s able to provide meaning for both students and teachers about the journey that African Americans have traveled in this county. Looking at where we started, in the most humblest, meager, dire positions, and where we are now, times have truly changed. We still have work to do, but we have more strength of community, state and country to allow us to grow together," Sams said.
Sams spoke about his own education history in the 1970s. He attended an all-black elementary school, and his first experience with a white person wasn’t until high school. He looks at his students today and sees how remarkably different things are.
"I see how comfortable they are with each other, in both formal and informal settings. In the lunch room, kids are sitting together, who you wouldn’t think would have anything to do with each other. Kids are talking together in classrooms, working together, who you wouldn’t think would be together. The kids are way more comfortable with each other than we give them credit for," he said.
After Barnes speech, Sams gave the former governor a endorsement as Barnes prepares for the Democratic gubernatorial primary.
"As an educator, I can truly appreciate an education governor. Thank you for being the education governor and we hope you will be the education governor again. Thank you Gov Barnes," Sams said.