A federal judge ruled Thursday that a black senior and his white classmate should share the title of valedictorian at a high school where the dispute over the top graduate has heightened racial tensions. But the black student said he would refuse to speak at tonight's ceremony for Newton County High School.
"I refuse to share in what I feel is an injustice," Johnathan Henderson, 18, said after the judge's ruling. He said he doesn't think the decision is "right or fair. I worked hard for this award and I deserve it."
Henderson said he will attend the graduation in Covington, about 30 miles southeast of Atlanta, but other black students said they will boycott graduation if Henderson is not the valedictorian.
U.S. District Judge Marvin H. Shoob said Henderson and C. Thomas Allgood III should share the honor when they and 329 other seniors graduate.
Allgood, 17, who is white, had compiled a slightly higher grade-point average than Henderson. But before transferring to the school he had earned some of his grades at a private school whose accreditation is in dispute.
Allgood, whose lawsuit brought the dispute into federal court, did not attend Thursday's hearing and was not immediately available for comment. His father, C. Thomas Allgood Jr., said he was elated by the ruling and would not question Henderson's decision.
"As far as I'm concerned, Thomas will be a co-valedictorian," he said.
The dispute has heightened racial tension at the school of 2,000 students, 30 percent of whom are black.
Interracial dating there sparked fights and boycotts of classes last fall, and police were called in to patrol the school. Ku Klux Klansmen 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.
The judge said he made the decision because the county school board abdicated its responsibilities by deadlocking in a vote on the matter Monday night.
"This is a local issue," he said. "It should have been decided by the school board."
The fight over the valedictorian began in April. County School Superintendent Richard Schneider recommended the two share the honor, which carries a $1,000 prize. Henderson's father asked the school board to pick one valedictorian; it picked Henderson.
Allgood sued, contending he should be the top graduate because his grade-point average was 97.7, including grades from two years at the private George Walton Academy. Henderson, 18, completed four years at Newton with a grade-point average of 96.96.