COVINGTON, Ga. - A black high school senior, whose dispute with a white classmate over the valedictorian honor ended in federal court, got a standing ovation last night as he wished peace for his community.
The fight between 18-year-old Johnathan Henderson and 17-year-old C. Thomas Allgood III ended Thursday when a federal judge ordered them to share the honor.
At the conclusion of his address, Henderson put down his prepared text, raised his hands and told the crowd that packed the gymnasium at Newton County High School in Covington, about 35 miles southeast of Atlanta:
"I wish future peace in this town. I wish future peace in this school and in this community."
Although Henderson declined the $1,000 scholarship given with the honor of being valedictorian, he and Allgood stood together after the graduation, fielding questions from reporters.
"I love this guy," Henderson said, as he put his arm around Allgood.
Both said they were happy and called the whole affair a learning experience. "There's no bitterness," Allgood said.
Henderson denied that he ever refused to deliver an address. "That was a mix-up by the media," he said. "I have to stand up for what I believe."
Allgood was not among the three seniors chosen by a class committee to speak to the 330 graduates.
U.S. District Judge Marvin H. Shoob ruled Thursday that the two students must share the honor because the Newton County School Board had failed to settle the dispute.
"You are the only young men I know of to be certified to be valedictorians by a federal court," Shoob said in making his ruling.
The dispute threatened to heighten racial tension at the high school, which has 2,000 students, 30 percent of them black.
But Newton County Sheriff Gerald Malcom deployed no extra security for last night's graduation.
African-American students had threatened to boycott the graduation, but the threat fizzled.
"All of us are going to graduate," 17-year-old Ternesha Jackson, who's black, said before the commencement. "I'm not going to miss my graduation for anything."
Earlier, Allgood said he and Henderson are "good acquaintances. We by no means dislike each other, even after all this."
The fight began in April, when School Superintendent Richard Schneider recommended that Allgood and Henderson share the honor.
Allgood had compiled a grade point average of 97.7 - slightly higher than the 96.96 Henderson earned during his four years at Newton County High. But Allgood's average included grades from two years at a private school that is not accredited by a regional accrediting association.
After Schneider recommended co-valedictorians, Henderson's father asked the School Board to pick just one. It picked Henderson.
Allgood sued, contending he should be the top graduate because his average was higher. His lawsuit was based on a federal law entitling students or parents to correct inaccuracies in academic records.
The suit wound up before Shoob, who ordered the School Board to hold a public meeting to decide the matter. But the board deadlocked Monday on a 2-2 vote.
In his ruling, Shoob said he would seek to determine why board Chairman Fran Ison did not attend Monday's meeting, leaving four board members without a tie-breaking vote.
Interracial dating at Newton County High sparked fights and boycotts of classes last fall. Police were called in to patrol the school, and the Ku Klux Klan staged a rally at the courthouse to protest interracial dating.
After Henderson was chosen valedictorian, white students protested, saying school administrators were unfair to whites. Another Klan rally followed.