FORT MILL — Songs, speeches, skits and stepping helped transform a gymnasium Friday morning into a decades-old history lesson for nearly 500 Banks Trail middle-schoolers.
In celebration of Black History Month, the middle school invited Fort Mill Optimist Club member John L. Sanders III to its annual assembly program. Sanders, a Vietnam war veteran and graduate of the George Fish School in 1964, shared stories of an era where African-Americans struggled against “separate-but-equal” conditions.
George Fish School was the high school attended by African-Americans in Fort Mill during segregation.
“I wanted (the students) to receive the importance of the students at my age,” Sanders said. “The power they had in civil rights movements. There probably wouldn’t be a Barack Obama if there hadn’t been.”
In the mid-1950s, Sanders’ household got a call the Ku Klux Klan would visit that night. Klan members sneaked onto the Sanders’ lawn, placed a cross on the yard and began to soak it in kerosene to set the cross ablaze. That’s when Sanders, his father and brother acted.
“We came out hollering, making all sorts of noise and suddenly they’re all falling down, racing to get back into the truck to get out of there,” Sanders said. “Next day, everybody was coming over to look at the cross. I still smell the kerosene today.”
That was Sanders’ introduction to racism, he said.
Also at the program, two student groups from Winthrop University performed, thanks to the efforts of Danielle Lennon, an eighth grade social studies teacher at Banks Trail.
Winthrop’s Association of Ebonites’ gospel choir sang spirituals, while sorority Sigma Gamma Rho performed a rhythmic step dance to spoken word.
“It really celebrates the history and the heritage of our nation and everything that is wonderful about African-American history,” Lennon said. “I hope the kids see these Winthrop students and get excited by our heritage.”
Before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington, Sanders said he was not served at a white restaurant or able to drink from the same water fountain as others in the community. Today, he says generations of students can live without fear in their hearts because of King’s courage to speak against segregation.
This year is the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Sixth-grader Sydney Welch was touched by Sanders’ words. She recited Langston Hughes’ “As I Grew Older” poem at Friday’s program.
“I think everyone got a lot out of this,” she said. “I thought it was really powerful what Mr. Sanders was saying.”