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Civil rights activist teaches students value of nonviolence

POSTED: November 13, 2013 11:58 p.m.

Charles Alphin, right, and Col. James Benson, left, observe Riverside Military Academy cadets after Alphin's speech about nonviolence.

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Six decades ago, 9-year-old Charles Alphin grabbed his bicycle and pedaled to the north side of St. Louis to cool off in a public swimming pool.

Upon arrival, he was greeted by an angry mob who beat him with sticks, stole his bicycle and threatened to hang him.

His crime: Being black.

Alphin, who is now 73, recounted these events to students at Riverside Military Academy in Gainesville as part of their Character Development Program on Wednesday. He described the anger he felt as a disenfranchised black youth growing up in segregated Missouri, his violent past and his slow conversion to pacifism through the teachings of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr.

“I didn’t know why people just didn’t like me and tried to hurt me; I just wanted to take a swim,” Alphin said to the cadets. “I became very angry as an African American, and I began to fight.

“I grew to understand that, if you disrespected me — called me the N-word — you had to take some lumps.”

Despite his frustrations, Alphin served in the military and then began a 26-year career in the St. Louis Police Department, where he advanced to the rank of captain. At the time, the department was also full of racism and many times white officers insulted Alphin, acts he responded to with his fists.

The turning point came in 1981, when Alphin was exposed to The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, which taught him the benefits of nonviolent activism. After his retirement from the police department, he began his second career by moving to Atlanta to work for the center, and later for LaFayette & Associates.

He has since traveled to South Africa, where he witnessed the election and inauguration of Nelson Mandela; Russia, to speak to college students and police; and Nigeria, where he attempted to rehabilitate militants, all in an effort to promote King’s nonviolent philosophy. 

“Dr. King taught me that nonviolence says you don’t stop fighting, you just change your weapons,” Alphin said. “Leaders learn to see the problem through their opponents’ eyes, and in a conflict, they don’t try to win over their opponent, they try to win their opponent over.”

Alphin said these lessons are important to teach, especially to young people, because they are the future of the world.

“I think sometimes in our society, we recycle garbage but throw away kids. You never throw away a human being, so I’m interested in speaking to all youth, both the positive and negative ones, because they are the future and they have the answers to our problems,” he said.

Riverside’s Character Development Program brings distinguished speakers to the campus every other week to promote social responsibility, good citizenship and personal integrity among the cadets. 

Past speakers include former head football coach of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets Chan Gailey, former Marine Corps Commandant Charles Krulak and former Commander of Marine Corps Special Operations Command Maj. Gen. Mastin Robeson.

Because it is difficult for the average person to retain all the information from a speech, the school aims to cement the topics through repeated exposure, regular discussions of each speaker and specific examples of how to apply moral principles, said school President Col. James Benson.


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