Last week we marked the annual anniversary of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday by inviting Dr. Sonnie Hereford III to speak to the Upper School community. When most of us think about the era of civil rights in Alabama, we remember the dramatic scenes that took place in Selma, Birmingham, and Montgomery. Huntsville rarely gets mentioned, but we’d be mistaken to assume that the there wasn’t conflict here and that the integrated society that we take for granted today just happened overnight.
Dr. Hereford is an eighty-one-year-old retired physician who led the movement here on the ground to integrate Huntsville’s schools. The son of a black sharecropper and Baptist minister, Dr. Hereford graduated from all-black schools before heading off for medical training at Meharry Medical School in Nashville. Beginning in 1956 he served as a physician in his native Huntsville, a career that spanned 37 years of practice.
Dr. Hereford’s presentation connected with our students because of his treasure trove of stories that gave detail and authenticity to a world that for many of us feels so long ago. He recounted how challenging it was to practice medicine for long hours at a time in Huntsville Hospital and, because of the color of his skin, be barred from the hospital cafeteria and from local diners. With great specificity he described how black patients were relegated to what was called the Annex, or Colored Wing, of Huntsville Hospital. This segregated area contained only fifteen beds, so if more than fifteen black patients were admitted at a time, they would be stuck in the halls and dirty, unkempt waiting rooms, even if beds were open in the main hospital.
One of Dr. Hereford’s avocations was playing the violin, and he practiced routinely with an instructor. On one occasion his teacher reported that a visiting violinist had lost his instrument in transit to Huntsville for an evening concert, and asked if he could borrow Dr. Hereford’s for the event. On his way home from work late that afternoon, Dr. Hereford reckoned with the incongruity that his violin was welcome at the concert hall, but because he was born African American, he was not welcome as a patron of the arts.
Dr. Hereford risked his entire career by becoming involved in the civil rights movement, but he understood that segregation of any kind thwarts and stunts our self-perception, and that he was called to rally behind Dr. King and other leaders to make Huntsville a better place for all its citizens. In the end, he led the fight to integrate Huntsville’s schools, and he famously walked his son Sonnie Hereford IV into the Fifth Avenue Elementary School in 1963, a whole nine years after the Supreme Court’s landmark case to integrate the nation’s public schools, Brown v. Board of Education.
Dr. Hereford’s participation in the movement was risky for his medical practice. As a physician, he always answered the phone. But late night calls began to shift from the typical request for his medical expertise to hateful threats against himself and his family. He learned to answer the phone as if he were a policeman at his house to separate the calls that needed attention from the cowardly ones that were designed to throw him off course.
Dr. Hereford’s presence at Randolph last week was meaningful in large part because his experience is so closely connected to our community and because his life shows how intellect can combine with courage to make the crooked places a little straighter. Even if federal government dollars and investment in the space industry tamped down the likelihood of a civil rights crisis akin to what occurred in Birmingham, Dr. Hereford’s experience reminds us that in Huntsville freedom was never free.
Dr. Hereford hit all the right notes. He closed his presentation by appealing to the students to take the baton and continue his life’s work as an advocate for freedom. That message should resonate with all of us, no matter what our political beliefs. King believed that “change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless you bend your back.” Those are values are timeless and should inspire us to stand a little straighter and reach beyond ourselves to make high-minded use of our education for the greater good of our communities.
Photo: Dr. Hereford and his son, Sonnie Hereford IV, the cover image of Dr. Hereford's memoir, Beside the Troubled Waters.