By MATTHEW HAMILTON
---- — PLATTSBURGH — For fourth-graders who are nervous about the first day of school, the butterflies usually come from wondering if the teacher will give a lot of homework or if they will have recess with their friends.
As Sanford Coakley walked into King George Elementary School in King George, Va., in 1962, the nerves were for a different reason.
He was one of the first five black students to be integrated into the school, a scene that was replaying across the South at the time.
It’s that part of his history and the nation’s history that Coakley will recall Monday when he speaks at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration, sponsored by the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commission at the Blessed John XXII College Community Newman Center in Plattsburgh.
‘TO GIVE BACK’
While he admits he isn’t one for public speaking, Coakley will deliver the address because he said his history reminds generations of the road it took to get to the level of equality society now has.
This is also his way to give back for how that road was paved for him.
“I didn’t know as a fourth-grader how it would affect my future, but when I look back on it, it was probably one of the best things for me as an individual, being a part of history,” Coakley said.
“I never imagined giving a speech about (it) — Dr. Martin Luther King gave me the opportunity, and I lived it.”
Coakley grew up in King George — just outside of Fredericksburg Va. — at the height of King’s work.
As a 9-year-old at King George Elementary, he didn’t realize the magnitude of the his role. For him, his it was different than the famed students who were enrolled in a Little Rock, Ark., school in 1954. He said the first week of class was made to be comfortable for him and that his teachers knew how to continue teaching with a new student in the class.
Now, Coakley is an assistant principal at Peru High School, a career field he picked up after retiring from the Air Force in 1993. He said his experiences at King George Elementary and throughout adolescence played a role in his choice to pursue a job as an educator.
“It had a very big bearing on me going into education because when I was at that younger age integrating into an all-white school, there were a lot of figures in my life that were motivators to me,” Coakley said.
“I can reflect back onto my football coach, who was someone who gave me that structure and that guidance to always achieve.
“I feel that through integration I was able to get that.”
Coakley is also the director of the Town of Beekmantown Youth Commission, a position that harkens back to a desire to give back in athletics, much like he wanted to do with education.
It was through a connection with the Youth Commission that he was asked to speak at this year’s commemoration.
“Definitely it (his story) enlightens and brings to focus some of the information about Dr. Martin Luther King,” said Maxine Perry, commissioner for the Martin Luther King Day Commission.
The Plattsburgh commemoration has taken place for more than 20 years, and Coakley’s presentation won’t be the only one Monday.
Perry said public officials, among them one from the City of Plattsburgh Mayor’s Office, along with two high-school students who received scholarships from the commission will also speak.
‘FOR WHO THEY ARE’
Coakley said his speech is an opportunity to give back to the community that he feels very comfortable in.
“We are, as far as equity goes in the North Country, very conscious of giving every individual the opportunity to be successful and to be a part of the community,” he said.
“I feel very comfortable in my community. Everyone accepts each other for who they are, not their color. …
“Our generations don’t see color. They see people for who they are.”
IF YOU GO
The Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration takes place at 1:30 p.m. Monday at the Blessed John XXII College Community Newman Center, 90 Broad St., Plattsburgh.
The public is welcome. Another event celebrating Martin Luther King takes place next week, on Sunday, Jan. 27, in Saranac Lake.
Celebrating Dr. King's Legacy of Nonviolence, with his own words, music and eye-witness testimony, is set for 3 p.m. at the 1st Presbyterian Church, 57 Church St.