Sixty years ago on May 17, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the 1896 ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson and declared separate was not equal for public schools and was therefore unconstitutional. While the decision in this case, Brown v. Board of Education, has received the most ink over the last six decades, the stories and people behind the landmark decision are even more vividly compelling and inspiring than the sea-changing unanimous ruling itself.
The five cases that composed this hearing came from four states and a district — Virginia, Kansas, Delaware, South Carolina and the District of Columbia — and were all sponsored by the NAACP. The Delaware case was the only one in which the lower courts actually found discrimination unlawful; the other four cases ruled against the parents and students who were suing for equality and desegregation.
Although the Supreme Court case is named after the suit from Kansas, it is the Virginia fight that stands out. It was the only case sparked by the students themselves, which opened up space for their parents and NAACP elders to fall in behind.
History books, if they mention this backstory at all, talk about the student walk out at R.R. Moton High School led by 16-year-old junior Barbara Rose Johns on April 23, 1951. While that fact alone is impressive, the planning and organization that went into pulling off the action is pure inspiration.
In many ways, Moton High School in Farmville, Va., was representative of the situation across great swaths of the United States in 1951. In comparison to its white counterpart across town, this school that served blacks was underfunded, undersupplied and dilapidated. More than 450 children were enrolled at the school, which was designed to hold only 180. The building had no gym, no cafeteria and no indoor plumbing. As many as three classes were being taught at the same time in the cramped auditorium; others were held in old school buses parked on site.
Conditions were so bad that the state government offered money to improve the school in 1947, but the all-white county school board refused to accept it. Instead, the county built several tar paper shacks — referred to as “chicken coops ” — that were hot in warm weather, cold in the winter and did not have enough desks.
Parents and educators in the black community had tried to get changes implemented and a new school built, but nothing substantive was forthcoming from the white powers that be. And the risks of organizing were serious under Jim Crow, ranging from casual threats to loss of employment, injury and lynching.
When 16-year-old Barbara Rose Johns approached her teacher about the situation, she was told to “do something about it.” It’s likely that Barbara was also inspired by her uncle, the civil rights leader Rev. Vernon Johns, and others in her family who valued education.
Sometime in the winter of 1950 Barbara had an idea.
“The plan was to assemble together the student council members,” she said. “From this, we would formulate plans to go on strike. We would make signs and I would give a speech stating our dissatisfaction and we would march out [of] the school and people would hear us and see us and understand our difficulty and would sympathize with our plight and would grant us our new school building and our teachers would be proud and the students would learn more and it would be grand.”
With this vision in mind — and with the knowledge that those who did not have a vision to sustain their risky and courageous scheming might be more of a liability than an asset — she began organizing in secret with four other students. By early spring in 1951, they strategically built a coordinating caucus of 15 trusted students who had key ties to different communities of the student body. They kept the date of their event quiet until their decision the evening before. At times the group even sent out false information to head off any interference from so-called Uncle Toms, the name for those who would undermine them. The plan was to trick the principal to leave the building, then call an assembly so that all of the students could decide together to march out to petition the county superintendent for a new high school.
They were bold, smart and somewhat fearful of ending up in jail. So they asked a brother of a student in the core group who was home from college what they should do if they were arrested and held in jail.
“And he said, ‘how many students are in your school?’” John Stokes recounted to the civil rights oral history project “Voices of Freedom.” “We said 400-something. He said, ‘how big is the Farmville jail?’ And we knew then we were on a roll. And the rest is history.”
On April 23, the decoy phone call came that a couple of truants were causing trouble at the bus station downtown, and the principal left to take care of business. Quickly, the core students distributed forged announcements from the principal calling for an immediate school assembly in the auditorium. The planning caucus was gathered on stage; everyone was paying attention. After the caucus leaders asked the teachers to leave the auditorium, Barbara laid out the plan to go out on strike in protest of overcrowding and inadequate facilities. It was reported that almost all of the more than 450 students were supportive, even though the principal returned and tried to talk them out of it. They marched down to the county courthouse to air their grievances, but because of segregation, the white press and whites in general didn’t take much notice.
The next day, when the student strike committee tried to meet with the school superintendent, they were refused and threatened with retaliatory expulsions.
By this point, Barbara and her crew were in touch with the local NAACP leadership and supportive clergy. At first, the elders were not encouraging; all the efforts aimed at getting equal facilities nationally were going nowhere, and the difficult work of fighting segregation was widely seen as the more effective path. Committing to the work of desegregation would serve to show the NAACP that the students were serious and worthy of support; otherwise, the NAACP would not be involved.
The students had to take a vote on this, as they did with all decisions, and it was a hard one. As Stokes remembers, they didn’t go on strike for integration but rather for the seemingly simpler demand of better educational facilities and opportunities. They were keenly aware of the value of their existing teachers and their tight-knit, supportive community, and they rightly feared losing these benefits in the process of desegregation. After a difficult meeting, the central caucus voted to commit to integration — passed by only one vote — thereby allowing the NAACP to take the case.
With NAACP support, one of the largest ever community-wide meetings was held in the local civil rights church. Parents were asked to sign up to show support for the students and the lawsuit ahead. The white press also finally decided to cover this meeting — even though it had refused the students’ requests to report on the previous three actions. Knowing that having white media at this sensitive meeting would be difficult, the students turned the journalists away.
At one point, one of the respected adults raised objections to moving forward. Again it was Barbara who spoke out and rallied the crowd to not listen to “any Uncle Toms,” prodding the assembled students and parents into taking a courageous step for the community. Although described as very quiet and lady-like, when it came to this issue, Stokes said that “she became a tiger … put on gloves and started fighting.” Buoyed by the student’s commitment, the parents and students collectively decided to strike until the end of the school year and to support the lawsuit.
A month after the walkout, the NAACP filed the case — Dorothy E. Davis et al v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, Virginia — and Barbara was sent to live with relatives in Alabama out of fear for her safety.
Later, this case on appeal became part of Brown v. Board of Education. The story of Prince Edward County’s resistance to quality education for all of its residents, however, does not end there. The county is more widely known for what it did in response to Brown v. Board of Education than for the student activism that preceded it. After the ruling, the county defunded and closed its public schools in 1959 in order to resist desegregation. It wasn’t until 1964 when the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the county to operate a public school system that the schools were reopened.
Today, the town of Farmville is still working through issues of racial equality with the help of Moton High School, which has been converted into a civil rights museum. On April 23, current high school students held a commemorative event reenacting the march from Moton to the court house to honor the courageous student strike of 1951.