Campus News

The power of the dream

First black graduate speaks about continuing King's legacy

Mary Frances Early, UGA’s first African-American graduate, had a Valentine’s Day message for the sold-out crowd at the eighth annual Freedom Breakfast held Feb. 14 at the Tate Student Center.

“Celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy by loving and serving others,” she said at the event, held in conjunction with the national King holiday. “In so doing, we can make America what it ought to be. We can help bring King’s dream to fruition.”

Early said that King lived his life to serve others and that “we are left to complete his work.”

“All of us are beneficiaries of his legacy,” she said. “We have a responsibility to make that dream a more complete reality.”

Early, who earned a master of music education degree in August 1962, spoke about growing up in Atlanta with segregated restrooms, water fountains, restaurants and buses. She spoke about studying in the only black library in Atlanta and not being able to go to symphony or orchestra performances.

Early said in the early 1960s she wanted desperately to join the fight for equality, but because she worked as a school teacher she couldn’t join the picket lines. And after watching Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter, who both went to the same high school as Early, ousted from UGA after a riot broke out on campus, Early decided to transfer to the university’s Graduate School.

That first summer she was the only African-American on campus.

“When I came to UGA in 1961, I couldn’t imagine coming to an event like this. I’m so pleased,” she said. “This breakfast is particularly special because it’s part of the 50th anniversary of UGA’s desegregation and King’s work made UGA’s desegregation not only possible, but inevitable.”

Early’s first job was three blocks away from King’s church in Atlanta and while she was attending UGA, she said she went to hear his sermons as often as possible. King even sent her a congratulatory letter after she graduated.

Themed “The Power of the Dream: Celebrating Courage,” the breakfast also recognized those who have made a difference in the community. The 2011 President’s Fulfilling the Dream Awards were presented to Josh Delaney, Dawn D. Bennett-Alexander and Donna Wilkins.

Delaney, a senior advertising major from Fayetteville, is the first undergraduate to receive the award. He was honored for his involvement with UGA student organizations and mentoring programs. He is president of the Student Government Association, former president of the Black Student Union and has been a mentor with the Friends for Life Mentoring Program.

Bennett-Alexander, an associate professor of legal studies in the Terry College of Business, was honored for her work in promoting diversity issues. She has published extensively on employment law with an emphasis on issues of race, gender and sexual orientation. She often speaks on diversity issues for organizations and groups, particularly at UGA.

Wilkins was honored for her lifetime commitment to serving school and community. She has taught at Chase Street Elementary School for the past 29 years, teaching special education for the last 24 years.

This year a new award, the Corporate Responsibility Award, was presented to Georgia Power Co. for its focus on diversity and inclusion.

Following the breakfast, Early, a former music teacher, met with students in the morning and members of the local community that afternoon at J.J. Harris Elementary Charter School for a reception given in her honor.

“It’s wonderful to see quality education going on in our schools because in so many places, student don’t get anything like this,” she told the crowd. “Music is not just the cream on the top of the cake, it actually develops the mind. When people understand that, they’ll stop cutting funding to the arts because they are essential to our education.”