TALLADEGA -- Talladega College graduate and local actor Rickey Powell on Wednesday served as keynote speaker for a special “Cake and Conversation” social event inside Talladega College’s Swayne Hall.

Powell discussed his personal experiences while at the college and during the civil rights movement.

“I don’t want to lecture you all today,” Powell said to students. “I want us instead to have a conversation.”  

During the event, Talladega College students listened intently as Powell described his life as black child growing up in Birmingham.

“In eighth grade, I went to school on the south side of town,” Powell said. “My family and I lived on what is called Dynamite Hill.”

Powell recalled riding the bus home with a friend, Cynthia Wesley, on Friday, Sept. 15, 1963.

“She had invited me to go to church with her that Sunday,” he said. “Two days later, the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing happened inside her church. Cindy and three others were killed and many others left injured. I ended up not going that day because my mom wanted me to attend a funeral instead.”

Powell said he remembers hearing the bomb blasts sounding between 10:17 and 10:21 that morning.

“At the time, no one thought much about it because loud noises went off in the city often with the steel industries close by,” he said. “We got through it and thrived because we had to. Everyone went to school that Monday.”

Powell also recalled being a footsoldier and marching alongside Dr. Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders.

“I grew up in a time where we didn’t know what to expect or what was gonna happen next,” Powell said. “We had dogs attack us and were beaten with nightsticks.”

The Talladega College alumnus encouraged students to leave the college as better people than when they first arrived.

“Be all you can be, but always stay humble,” he said.

Powell received his Bachelor of Arts in 1973. The vocal major has been a part of many popular Broadway productions, including “Hair” and the original cast of “The Wiz.”

Powell returned to Alabama to be closer to family in the late 1990s and is acting in the Birmingham Children’s Theatre’s production of “Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.”

Throughout the week, the play has been performed for area students at The Historic Ritz Theatre in Talladega.

The production depicts the events that unfolded Dec. 1, 1955, in Montgomery,  when Rosa Parks, a black woman, refused to give up her seat on a public bus to a white man.

“The production is very moving and stays true to the era,” Ritz Executive Director George Culver said. “The students have really enjoyed it.”

Culver added The Ritz hosted 2,285 students from Talladega City and Country schools for six performances.

“We had all fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade students from 16 area schools,” Culver said. “This exceptional educational experience was provided at no cost whatsoever to the students.”

Culver added the arts enrichment is made possible by Ritz membership contributions and the Mardi Gras Gala and Low Country Shrimp Boil and DrawDown fundraisers.

“Since The Ritz re-opened in February 1998 as a regional performing arts and civic event center, over 90,000 area students have attended curriculum-relevant arts education initiatives at The Historic Ritz Theatre,” Culver said. “Few other small American cities our size can boast of such an lofty achievement.”