On June 1, 1970, I walked across the stage at Cherokee High School along with more than 300 classmates and friends to receive my high school diploma.
When I unpacked my diploma this week from the folder where my mother placed it for safe keeping 50 years ago, it brought back a flood of memories.
Canton and Cherokee County were so much more insular in those days, a safe haven where everyone knew everyone, and where most folks were good people.
We lived a life made up mostly of family, school, and church. We were a close knit community, and hung out together at each other’s homes, at churches, ballfields, dances, the Burger Chief. We cheered at basketball games together, congregated at the Canton Drug Store or Dixie Inn, or the Jiffy Freeze. We had fun, studied, worked hard. and played harder.
At Cherokee High, we still had a dress code, although college campuses across the country were filled with long-haired, blue jean wearing hippies.
At CHS girls still were allowed to wear only dresses, no pants. I know that seems hard to believe, even for me. Despite being the denim capital of the South, no blue jeans were allowed at CHS. The young men wore neat clothes and hair had to be cut short to the ears, and anyone who broke the rules faced punishment.
Our outer appearance was supposed to reflect our inner morals. And we were still a patriotic community, where God and country were both revered.
But we were stepping off that stage that spring and out into a world that was fraught with conflict, change and dissent.
Whether headed to college, a job or to serve in the military, the world was a changing canvas of protest, demonstrations, and uncertainty.
The young men in our class faced the possibility of being drafted to go fight a war it seemed no one wanted in a far corner of Southeast Asia.
Tensions abroad and at home were escalating in the Vietnam War and support in the U.S. was dwindling after years of seeing young men die and no end in sight.
On April 30, 1970, just a month before our graduation, President Richard Nixon ordered the invasion of Cambodia by U.S. and South Vietnamese troops.
As news of the further assault reached the U.S. on small black and white TV sets in living rooms and on college campuses, the images further fueled anti-war sentiments, and protests began to break out on college campuses.
At Kent State University in Ohio, a demonstration with about 500 students was held on the Commons. I remember the photos of the peaceful green area of the campus ablaze with dissension. On May 2, students burned down the ROTC building at Kent State.
Two days later, on May 4, National Guardsmen confronted and killed four students and injured 10 more with their bullets during a large protest demonstration at the college.
Soon, more than 450 university, college and high school campuses across the country were shut down by student strikes and violent and non-violent protests that involved more than 4 million students.
The shootings at Kent State had ignited a powder keg of unrest across the country.
Just days later, on May 8 news stories reported that 100,000 protesters gathered in Washington, D.C., and another 150,000 in San Francisco.
Nationwide, students turned their anger on what was the nearest military facility they could find, usually college Reserve Officers’ Training Corps offices. As the battles grew, about 30 ROTC buildings went up in flames or were bombed.
There were violent clashes between students and police at 26 schools and National Guard units were mobilized on 21 campuses in 16 states.
President Nixon was whisked away to Camp David to keep him safe amid the growing protests.
In all, at least 50,000 Americans lost their lives in the Vietnam War, and estimates as high as 1.3 million others were casualties of the conflict between North and South Vietnam in a war that lasted years.
Still, we had our graduation, and all the trappings of our senior year at dear old Cherokee High.
Now, 50 years later, a global pandemic has left a senior class here and throughout our world, graduating into a world of uncertainty, political unrest, economic hardship, and change.
Many families have first generation college graduates receiving their diplomas this spring. Graduates have worked long and hard for those pieces of paper.
High school students are missing out on all the trappings of proms, parties, and the pomp and circumstance of graduation, although hopefully that is only delayed until later this summer.
Still, it is tough on these young people and their families to miss these life changing moments in real time.
And my class of 1970 has for more than a year been working toward our reunion set for September. We are still hoping to have that occasion of remembering and reuniting as friends and classmates.
I know that we as Americans are resilient, strong, and able to overcome obstacles, whatever they are.
I believe that in 50 years the Class of 2020 will look back at their graduation in the midst of a pandemic and know that it made them better people, that it changed their lives and their world in a positive way by bringing us all together and showing us what is really important.
I salute these graduates as they step off the stage of Cherokee County and into the life that awaits them, and I wish them all the best.