updated 08/09/2014 AT 5:00 PM ET
•originally published 08/10/2014 AT 4:45 PM ET
As a black teen living in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, Alva Earley knew that he wouldn’t be welcome at an unofficially segregated Galesburg, Illinois, park.
Toting a pot of baked beans, he went anyway to the NAACP-sponsored picnic held on the “white side” of the park, even after a school counselor’s threat that if he attended, “You will not graduate. You will not go to college,” Earley recalls.
But showing support for equality was the right thing to do, Earley tells PEOPLE. “We paid city taxes, we paid state taxes, we paid federal taxes,” he says. “So why should we have to be in a dump when we could be in a park that was state-of-the-art? We went there to convey a message.”
Days later, even though the then 17-year-old had earned all the proper credits to graduate with the other 360 students, Galesburg High School wouldn’t give him his diploma and banned him from the ceremony, he says. But this week, 55 years after that injustice, Earley, now 73, finally got his long overdue diploma.
“It’s far beyond anything I’ve experienced to date,” says a teary Earley, clad in an old graduation gown, before a gathering of almost 100 former classmates, according to the Chicago Tribune. “I wish I knew where to start. I wish I knew where to end.”
Going to the picnic in 1959 on the side of the park that was considered off-limits to non-whites – fellow classmate and historian Owen Muelder tells PEOPLE that African-Americans were also relegated to the third-floor balcony in the town’s theater and a separate side of the beach – led to that painful chapter in Earley’s life.
“He went down to get measured (for his graduation cap and gown) and they told him to go back to study hall,” says Muelder, who ended up pushing for Earley to get his diploma.
‘It hurt so deeply’
“Not to be able to walk down the aisle … it hurt so deeply,” Earley says. “I can’t even explain how deeply it hurt.”
At first, he didn’t even think being denied his diploma was possible – after all, with his good grades he had already been accepted to two prestigious universities. “I thought this was the United States of America, where we all have inalienable rights,” Earley says. “I was wrong.”
The universities withdrew their acceptance letters, Earley says, and he then considered joining the Air Force until the president of Knox College, a private liberal arts school in Galesburg, granted him acceptance after hearing his story.
Earley left Knox after two years because of finances and went on to graduate from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He then earned a law degree from Chicago Kent College of Law, as well as a doctorate in divinity from an Episcopalian seminary on the Northwestern University campus, he says.
Earley served as an assistant pastor at a Chicago church and also worked as an employment benefits attorney for the state of Illinois. Then, he retired and moved to Colorado.
50 years later
More than 50 years after he was banned from his high school graduation, Earley returned to town for a college reunion and told former classmates of his experience, Muelder says. “He’s still angry about this,” he says. “Who wouldn’t be?”
Muelder and other classmates began working to get Earley his diploma, contacting school officials to review old records. “It’s certainly a clear wrong and a way to right it in some small way,” Muelder says.
On Friday, the Galesburg school board finally presented Earley with his high school diploma. “I’m delighted for him,” Muelder says. “It took too long.”
Galesburg Superintendent Bart Arthur tells the Tribune, “He had the grades, and he deserved the diploma.”
Ultimately, Earley says, he’s grateful to his classmates and hopes for a better future. “Let’s get beyond hatred,” he says, “to make this world a better place.”