Sometimes, life rewards you when you least expect it.

For James McFadden, that reward came in the form of a college degree - 50 years after he had earned it.

Last month, his alma mater, Alabama State University, conferred honorary degrees on McFadden and eight of his classmates who had been expelled in 1960 for their role in the Alabama State student sit-in movement.

Now a spry 71, McFadden has lived in North Philly since 1960. The new graduate arrives at our interview resplendent in a "protest suit" - you know, the kind of business wear students wore in the '60s when participating in nonviolent action - complete with his trademark fedora.

He spent his life as an activist. He's done human-rights work in Ghana, counseled troubled youths in Philadelphia, founded progressive, grassroots organizations. Even did a two-year stint in the Army - which some would say is the most active kind of activism.

Most recently, he retired as a teacher at Beeber Middle School in West Philadelphia.

But first and foremost, McFadden sees himself as a "revolutionist."

Which is why he didn't flinch when Alabama State kicked him out.

Righteousness was what fueled him, not reward.

"We were on a mission," he says. "We knew we were making history. Everything else was secondary."

Student protests

A college degree was the last thing on McFadden's mind in February of 1960, the year Alabama State ignited a wave of student protest that brought Jim Crow Alabama to its knees.

McFadden was only one quarter shy of graduating from what was then Alabama State College when he and two dozen fellow students staged a sit-in at the Montgomery County Courthouse in an attempt to desegregate the courthouse's dining facility.

McFadden, along with eight classmates authorities identified as ringleaders, were arrested and released. But this was the Deep South, after all, and the powers that be weren't about to take the students' courageous sit-in lying down.

Now, you would think that a historically black college such as Alabama State would act as a safe haven for its students.

But a segregationist governor sat on the board of trustees of state-funded institutions.

Gov. John Patterson immediately expelled the nine. And McFadden, who had already completed course work for his bachelor's degree in science (with a minor in physical education), left without it.

Looking back, he says, "Getting expelled was probably the best thing that ever happened to me."

Historically, he and his classmates had made a difference. Their demonstrations led to a federal lawsuit that ended universities' ability to arbitrarily expel students with no regard to their rights.

The fact that McFadden had an arrest record and no degree never precluded him from getting a job or going to graduate school at West Chester University, he says.

"I'd tell them my story - and they liked my story," he says.

Long overdue

Still, when Alabama State University announced in February - during a conference commemorating the golden anniversary of the student sit-ins - that it would confer honorary degrees on the nine expelled students, well, it was as if McFadden and his pals had hit the lotto.

There were only three surviving student leaders - Joseph Peterson of Alabama, St. John Dixon of California, and McFadden - and all walked across the stage during commencement ceremonies at the Dunn-Oliver Acadome in Montgomery on May 8.

"That was the most fulfilling experience - walking across that stage that I couldn't walk across 50 years ago, with 16,000 people standing and cheering," McFadden says. "I thought about my [paternal] grandparents [both educators], my parents, my grandchildren. . . . I feel good knowing that I've done something that somebody recognized as honorable."

Contact Annette John-Hall

at 215-854-4986 or Ajohnhall@phillynews.com.