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Longtime civil rights pioneer Dr. Sonnie Hereford dies

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - Dr. Sonnie Hereford III, a longtime civil rights pioneer in north Alabama, has died.

He died Thursday morning at Huntsville Hospital after battling colon cancer.

Hereford, 85, holds a special place in Huntsville's history.  In 1963, his son Sonnie Hereford IV became the first of four black students to attend a white public school in Alabama.

"I'm hoping that one day in my city that we're not going to see any racial distinction or any class distinctions," Hereford told a crowd in 2015.

He was a retired physician in the Huntsville community, but he is most known for the iconic image of him and his son walking away from Huntsville's Fifth Avenue School in 1963. The photographer behind the picture, though, remains a mystery.

"It was taken anonymously and sent to him two or three years after the event with just a note saying, 'I thought you would like to have this,'" said UAH Professor Emeritus Jack Ellis.

Three days later, the Huntsville City Schools System became the first integrated school district in the state.

"He was able to bring change to Huntsville and to do that peaceably," Ellis said.

Ellis helped to document Hereford's life and legendary walk in the book Beside the Troubled Waters. He said he spoke to Hereford about a week ago and despite his failing health, his spirit remained the same.

"His voice, this time, was very, very weak and I knew he wasn't feeling good, but he still had that elan, that drive, and things he was going to do next, even though he was facing this terrible, terrible illness," Ellis said. "He was talking about things he was going to do next, and when I hung up the phone, I said to my wife, 'Well, you have to give it to Dr. Hereford, he just keeps going and nothing holds him back,' and I think we need more people like that."

The list of lives Hereford impacted is endless. Huntsville Multicultural affairs officer Kenny Anderson taught alongside Hereford at Calhoun Community College. He said Hereford constantly gave of his time, his talent and his knowledge in a life devoted to creating opportunities for others.

"Dr. Hereford was a true giant," Anderson said. "Every time I got around him, I felt like I was walking among giants. That was a true acknowledgment of the person that I felt he was. He was just a remarkable human being and I'm glad to know that he made the mark that he had on the city of Huntsville and I know that other people's lives are better because of knowing him and my life is as well,"

Hereford was the son of sharecropper and Primitive Baptist minister in Madison County. He attended school at Huntsville's all-black Councill School, which was surrounded on three sides by the city's dump. Hereford later received his medical training at Meharry Medical College in Nashville and opened his practice in Huntsville in 1956, serving as a physician in the community for 37 years.

"Oftentimes, it's somewhat easy to look back in history at a person, call them a pioneer and a civil rights icon, even, and that's certainly something that is done in a lot of respect, but I think the thing we miss sometimes is the real challenges that they faced, the sacrifices that they were making at the time."

Funeral arrangements have not yet been announced.

The Hereford name will also live on at a new Huntsville City School.  Sonnie Hereford Elementary is scheduled to open this fall, on the site of the former Terry Heights Elementary.  The dedication of the school will be held this month.

School board president Laurie McCaulley said in an interview with WHNT News 19, that Hereford III was able to tour that school before he passed away. It wasn't 100% complete, but it was something he really wanted to do.

"He was overcome with emotion," she said. "He said, 'This it named after me?' and I said, 'Yes, it is.'"

This school will be drastically different than the one in which Hereford was educated. She said he was in awe of the "cafetorium" at the school and its media center, with more books and opportunities than he grew up with.

She added that Hereford cared about children, from those he delivered as a doctor (including herself) to those for whom he fought in court, working toward unitary status for Huntsville City Schools. It led his contributions and instrumental work on education in Huntsville.

"What he fought for was the right thing. It's not about being separate and being equal. It's about making sure that everybody, every student, has a quality education," commented McCaulley.