MILLEDGEVILLE — John Harden Jr. always stood up for what he believed was right in regards to education and social issues. Receiving an education at the only all-black private school in Georgia during the era of racial tension was challenging, but Harden’s moral character and perseverance through those difficult times as a teenager got him recognized as the recipient of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Award for Human and Social Service.
“To answer what I did to receive such a prestigious award is really captivated in a simple act of social service — attempting to keep the unity and peace among my friends and peers at that time,” the now 62 year old said. “For those of us who had a chance to live during Dr. King’s times of sacrifice and peaceful protest against racism, poverty and war, he gave us a sense of courage in a time of fear, a sense of unity and purpose as a nation and a race of people. I thank God for Dr. King.”
During Harden’s high school senior year at Boggs Academy in Keysville, a few of his peers felt the inadequate food portions at each meal was not enough to keep them full throughout the school day. The 145 students in grades eight through 12 organized a protest in the dining room as they chanted and refused to eat in hopes to increase the amount of food each student received.
“I felt like I should participate in the protest to be part of the student body, but I also didn’t want to get in trouble because I wanted to make my parents proud as their only child. My thinking was, if we did this and we were successful, we might be able to participate in some of the bigger marches going on in the south,” he said. “We walked around the dining room chanting what we had heard our instructor tell us about how it was going with the civil rights workers in the south, so we were mimicking what we had learned since none of us actually saw a protest.”
The rally began at breakfast and continued through lunch. Harden said hunger started to set in by dinnertime.
“No one was speaking out about the hunger in an effort to show strength and commitment to the cause for the protest. Well, I was hungry and I made up my mind at 18 years old that I was not going to be hungry any longer that day, but I also wanted all of my peers to eat too,” Harden recalled. “I stopped everyone in front of the dinning room and explained how I felt we were fighting against ourselves and that we needed to approach solving this problem another way.”
Harden explained to his fellow protesters, in front of the school superintendent and some staff, that continuing to eat in the dining room needed to be the focus in order to stay in unity with administration and “not cause a scandal at our all-black school.”
“I let my peers know that our cause might have been reasonable, but we needed to eat in order to prepare to learn without sitting in class hungry and we needed to handle this in a different way,” he said. “The students listened to me; I think because they were hungry too, and we all went in the dinning room together and ate. Our school superintendent called me outside the dinning room and thanked me and said ‘keep up the good work; I am expecting great things from you John.’”
Soon after the protest, the school superintendent and dietitian agreed to allow students to receive a second serving of food at all meals. Harden was awarded with the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. service award in front of the entire student body during the commencement exercise.
“I had never heard of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. award being started anywhere in the world. I had no idea until the last minute, that my superintendent was going to give me this honorable award,” Harden said. “I thank Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for dedicating himself as a courageous nonviolent social servant. I would like for young people today to model the behavior of Dr. King and use it for academic and socially-concerned issues, and become less apt to choose violence in any given situation.”
Born in Fort Valley, Harden has called Milledgeville home since the age of 1. He was raised by his father, a Methodist preacher, and mother, an elementary school educator.
“When I was born, my father was 62 years old and my mother was 19. My father died in 1968 while I was away at the private school,” Harden said. “My mother and father committed their lives to serving and helping others. [They] gave me the first examples of living a conservative, spiritually, disciplined life.”
Harden attended Carver Elementary School before enrolling in the eighth grade at Boggs Academy, located just 10 miles south of Waynesboro.
“Boggs Academy had such a high academic standard. My mother and father felt that I could get a better cultural and academic education at Boggs than I could at other schools. They wanted me to be familiarized with the situation of being black in a segregated society,” Harden said. “At Boggs, if we were dissatisfied with something in society, like segregation, we were taught to use nonviolent peaceful protests as a way to get our point across ... the same way Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and many others were doing at that time.”
Harden enrolled at Fort Valley State University on a full basketball scholarship, earning a bachelor’s degree in social work. After moving back to his hometown of Milledgeville, he began working as a forensic service technician at Central State Hospital until he retired in 2011. Harden now works as a counselor at River Edge Behavioral Health Center. He has been married to his wife Earnestine for the past 40 years.
“Today, I work to reach out and help others on my job and in every walk of life. I know now that it is not all about me, and I must stay constant in serving my fellow man,” he said. “One of my learning experiences from that school protest is that I can be able to change things no matter how powerful if I go about it in a peaceful way. I suggest to young people to become more active in their community and work toward changing the negative.”
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