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Trailblazers Awards celebrates 50th anniversary of Freedom of Choice school integration
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The Citizens Progressive Club of Rockdale County

Students across Rockdale County recently kicked off the start of a new school year with a flurry of excitement.

Fifty years ago, students in Rockdale were doing the same thing, but were quietly making history. 

The year was 1965. More than a dozen black students chose to attend the formerly all-white Rockdale High School and the former Main Street elementary school under the “Freedom of Choice” voluntary integration initiative. Ranging from second grade to 12th grade, these students would shoulder their book bags and the heavy responsibility of being the community’s ambassadors and pioneers.

In celebration of these students’ quiet courage and in recognition of leadership that put the interests of the community first, on Saturday, September 12, 6 p.m., the Citizens Progressive Club of Rockdale, along with Rockdale County Public Schools, will honor and recognize these trailblazers who stepped up to become the first to integrate Rockdale’s public schools. 

Rockdale County High School’s first black graduates, Veronica Lester Flanigan and Aubrey Webb, will be in attendance along with other members of that first group of students.

The ceremony will take place at Rockdale Career Academy, 1064 Culpepper Road, with an awards ceremony starting at 6 p.m. to be followed by a banquet catered by RCA’s Culinary Arts students.

Tickets are $25 each and sponsorships are available for the event. For tickets or more information, contact Gloria Armstead at 770-388-9730, Lonnie Fears at 770-483-4522, or Pastor Aldren Sadler, Sr., at 404-374-0585.

RCPS spokesperson Cindy Ball said, “As stated in our strategic plan, we believe diversity strengthens our community. We invite the community to join us with the Citizens Progressive Club in celebrating former students who displayed great character and integrity fifty years ago during the integration of Rockdale County Public Schools.”

Sadler, president of the Citizens Progressive Club, said the idea for the celebration came to him last year, as the movie “Selma” was being produced. Sadler was in 10th grade at the JP Carr School at the time and his parents did not ask if he wanted to attend RCHS, but he saw his cousin Aubrey Webb become the first African-American male to graduate from RCHS.

“I think oftentimes, people will study history about things that have happened in places away from them. This is something we have right here in our own back yard we can celebrate. We don’t have to go to Birmingham or Arkansas. We’ve got history right here,” said Sadler. 

While some desegregation efforts in metro Atlanta and across the South saw riots and National Guard deployments, Rockdale’s version was especially quiet and smooth. Rockdale is among a minority of Georgia counties that was never sued or placed under federal court supervision for desegregation.

Community leaders, both black and white, saw the writing on the wall and came together. Sadler said, “There was a lot of planning prior to this taking place. There were sit down around the table type meetings. I thought it was remarkable how that worked.”