SWANSEA — Wolf Branch Middle School students got a history lesson Thursday from East St. Louis native Reginald Petty, 78, who was involved in the Civil Rights Movement and knew the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Rosa Parks.
"When I was your age, I couldn't go to any store or restaurants around here," Petty said, speaking to more than 300 middle school students gathered in the gymnasium of the school.
In addition, he said blacks and whites couldn't be buried in the same cemetery or go to the same school, and the sports teams couldn't play against one another.
"I was always furious about these things," said Petty, who is a historian and author. "I knew something was wrong."
After earning a master's degree, Petty said he moved to Jackson, Miss. He recalled being arrested three dozen times in one year and having the house he was living in bombed twice.
Petty said the arrest he remembers the most is when the police took him to a barbershop to get his head shaved. "The barber said black people were stupid and I couldn't learn anything," he said.
At the time, Petty said he knew that statement was "idiotic," because the white barber likely only had a fifth- or sixth-grade education and he had a master's degree.
Another time Petty said he was arrested for littering, because he sat a bottle of Coke next to him on the ground.
During his time in the Civil Rights Movement, Petty said he was committed to non-violence just as Martin Luther King Jr. was.
Petty, who spent several years in Africa with the Peace Corps., said segregation was also present in some African countries like South Africa.
He recalled sitting on a bench in a park in South Africa and being told by a police officer that he couldn't sit there, because the bench was for white people.
Over the last 50 years, Petty said changes have been made, but more can be done to ensure equality for all. "Progress has been made, but we also know there is a long way to go," he said.
"I'm hoping you all in here will be able to make the changes," Petty told the middle school students. "There's a lot of work to be done and I want all of you to do it."
He encouraged students to learn multiple languages and about different cultures and countries all over the world.
Following his remarks, Petty talked to the students about several historical artifacts he came across during his time in Africa including a fish vertebrae necklace, ankle weights used to keep slaves from running away and a gold and bronze bowl made by hand in Kenya.
Students had the opportunity to ask Petty questions and several students asked about Petty's relationship with other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.
Petty said he knew Malcolm X well and was "very upset when he was killed."
Seventh-grade student Jared Raney said he was inspired by Petty's story. "It was inspiring that he didn't give up," Raney said after the hour-long assembly.
Wolf Branch Middle School Principal Jeff Burkett said Petty's visit was the culmination of the school's celebration of Black History Month.
Contact reporter Jamie Forsythe at 239-2562 or firstname.lastname@example.org.