The General Assembly has adjourned its annual session. In future columns I will write about bills that survived the Governor’s veto pen and those that did not. In the final days of the session we honored once again a then young woman named Barbara Johns who contributed so much to the history of Virginia. On Feb. 23 Gov. Terry McAuliffe dedicated the renovated former Richmond Hotel and now Office of the Attorney General as the Barbara Johns Building. Barbara is also honored on the grounds of the State Capitol with a statue of her, prominently part of the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial.
Her story is a very meaningful one in the civil rights movement in Virginia, and her example of leadership is one that must be emulated today. Barbara attended Robert Russa Moton High School. While the white children in the community went to a brick school, her school was an overcrowded, dilapidated tar paper shanty. She was frustrated with the conditions of the facility. She dreamed of a school where the students did not have to keep their coats on all day to stay warm and where classes were not held in the auditorium.
In April 1951, (before Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King Jr.’s movements), Ms. Johns, at 16 years old, organized a strike at her school. She felt her idea to strike was divinely inspired and sought no outside validation for her actions. She was just a junior in high school when she met with several of her classmates to organize. On April 23, 1951, more than 450 Moton High School students walked out of their school and marched to the courthouse and to the homes of local school officials to protest the conditions of their school. A few days into the strike, the students contacted the NAACP for legal counsel. Civil rights lawyers from the NAACP filed a lawsuit asking for full integration of the county’s public schools. The students who wished to file suit combined their names into a list, and Dorothy E. Davis, the daughter of a local farmer, was the first to add her name to the list. One month later, the NAACP filed “Davis vs. County School Board of Prince Edward County” (named after Dorothy Davis) in federal court. The case was appealed to the United States Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court combined its ruling in the Davis case with four other similar cases to form the landmark 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas that declared the segregation of public schools unconstitutional.
Although the Davis case did not result in the desegregation of Prince Edward County’s public schools — it took 10 years and 40 lawsuits to overcome Massive Resistance — Ms. John’s actions were vital for the future of the civil rights movements.
In the words of Gov. McAuliffe, “Ms. Johns’ history is a lasting reminder to inspire men and women to fight for justice and equality and reminds us of the enormous impact one person can have when they fearlessly stand up for what they believe is right.”
Barbara Johns stood up to what she knew was wrong. Her example is one that those who ask “what can I do?” must follow today.