Alexandria’s T.C. Williams High School opened the same year that Rep. John Lewis, then a 25-year-old civil rights activist, crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., marching in the company of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. before being beaten down and tear-gassed by riot police.
For Lewis, 1965 would mark a major victory for the civil rights movement, with the passage of the Voting Rights Act, a move catalyzed by that ugly confrontation on the bridge.
For Alexandria, 1965 would mark a year of progress toward full integration. It was the year the school district closed Parker-Gray High, a poorly funded, overcrowded black high school and opened T.C. Williams, the first high school that would be integrated from its inception.
Upon the 50th anniversary of the school’s opening, Lewis implored T.C. Williams students to fight for justice and to get into “necessary trouble,” referring to the many times he was arrested during acts of civil disobedience.
The son of a sharecropper who spent his childhood raising chickens, Lewis said he hoped his rise from poverty in rural Alabama to being elected a member of Congress would inspire them.
“I am saying to you young people that you can be what you want to be,” the Georgia Democrat told students Monday morning. “Never give up. Never give in. Never become hostile. . . . Hate is too big a burden to bear.”
Although integrated in 1965, that year did not mark the end of the Alexandria school system’s troubles with race. In 1971, under the threat of a court order, the school district closed its other high schools and sent all students to T.C. Williams to further desegregate. And the school is best known for its struggles to integrate its football team, a story chronicled in the popular film “Remember the Titans.” (Lewis told students he saw the 2000 movie at the White House, where he split a bag of popcorn with President Bill Clinton.)
The school still struggles with a racial achievement gap but has been recognized for its efforts to get more minority students into advanced classes. It also has a new demographic challenge: an influx of immigrants arriving who often speak little English and are far behind in classes. The school opened an International Academy, where recent arrivals get intensive academic help and counseling.
For students, though, the notion that their schools were once largely segregated is a difficult one to grasp.
“For me, that’s completely bizarre,” said 17-year-old Alyssa Forbes, a senior. There are cliques, Forbes said, but they are delineated more by common interests and activities than by race. The child of a military family, she said she has grown up going to school with classmates of “a million different races.”
In a question-and-answer session, students were aware that Lewis’s struggle for equality is not finished.
“When you see things happening with Ferguson and Trayvon Martin,” one student asked, referring two high-profile fatal shootings of unarmed black teenagers, “how did it feel since you shed so much blood on the bridge?”
“I don’t feel good about it,” Lewis replied, approaching the girl, who was seated on the stage. “I really believe that all of us, as Americans . . . we all need to be treated like fellow human beings.”
As Lewis answered, tears streamed down the student’s face. In an interview, the student said it was Lewis’s steadfast commitment to nonviolence that moved her, that he managed to maintain a peaceful disposition even after being beaten by police and repeatedly jailed.
“I was inspired,” she said.