Moving America Forward

After a Grave Injustice, This 73-Year-Old High School Graduate Finally Receives His Diploma

August 20, 2014
After a Grave Injustice, This 73-Year-Old High School Graduate Finally Receives His Diploma
Alva Earley is presented his high school diploma from Galesburg, Ill. superintendent Bart Arthur five decades after completing high school. Evan Temchin/Knox College
Fifty-five years ago, Alva Earley was banned from his own graduation for standing up to segregation.

It has taken more than five decades to right this wrong, but at 73-years-old, Alva Earley finally received his diploma from Galesburg High School.

According to the Chicago Tribune, the retired attorney wept as he accepted what he had rightfully earned back in 1959.

Earley grew up in the deeply segregated city of Galesburg, Ill. When he was 17-years-old, he attended a NAACP-sponsored picnic in a park that was considered off-limits for black people.

“We paid city taxes, we paid state taxes, we paid federal taxes,” he told People magazine. “So why should we have to be in a dump when we could be in a park that was state-of-the-art? We went there to convey a message.”

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“We were just trying to send a message that we are people, too,” Earley said. “We just had lunch. For that, I didn’t graduate.”

Not only was he banned from graduation for challenging segregation, but also two universities rescinded their acceptance letters because of Earley’s lack of a diploma. According to People, Earley was considering the Air Force until the president of Knox College in Galesburg, Ill. decided to admit him after hearing about the park incident.

With his incredible persistence, Earley then went on to graduate from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He also earned a degree in law and a doctorate in divinity.

Although he was always angry about being denied his diploma, Earley had kept quiet about his graduation ban until a high school reunion last year. Stunned after hearing his story, his classmates pushed for the school district’s current superintendent Bart Arthur to award Earley’s diploma. After reviewing the old records, Arthur agreed.

“Alva deserved it,” said classmate Lowell Peterson told the Tribune. “When people have been mistreated, we owe it to them to address the injustice. This is just a little chance to make something right.”

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