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“A Gentlemen’s Fight”
Nobody was murdered or maimed, but nobody backed down for twenty years in the struggle over school integration in Prince Edward County, Virginia. Who finally won?
August/September 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 5
The student leaders made two telephone calls that afternoon. One was to the Reverend L. Francis Griffin at his church in Farmville; the other was to the Richmond law office of Spottswood Robinson and Oliver Hill, attorneys for the NAACP. Two days later, in the assembly hall of First Baptist Church, the lawyers and Griffin met with a delegation of students, and the following night, an estimated 1,000 students and parents crammed into the Moton High auditorium to hear and approve, with only a few dissenting voices, a plan for legal action—not just to obtain equal educational facilities, but to end segregation in the Prince Edward County schools.
White reaction was by stages disbelieving, confused, alarmed, resentful. There were meetings with the student leaders, letters to parents, promises of an all-out effort to secure funds for a new school, charges that the principal of Moton and others (including Griffin) had masterminded the strike. After the school board rejected a petition from the NAACP attorneys calling for desegregation of the education system, the petition promptly was taken into federal court, and the black students returned to school to await the results.
It proved to be a long wait. M. Boyd Jones, the Moton principal, was fired at the end of the year by the school board. The family of Barbara Johns, concerned for her safety, sent her for her senior year to Montgomery, Alabama, where she lived with her uncle, the Reverend Vernon Johns, an expatriate Prince Edward Countian (and predecessor of Martin Luther King, Jr., in the pastorate of Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church). Pressure to abandon the lawsuit was brought to bear upon many blacks in Prince Edward County, including some in Francis Griffin’s church, causing him to put his job on the line by calling for a vote of confidence (and getting it, almost unanimously). Local and state officials, hoping to blunt the desegregation suit by making “separate but equal” a reality, came up with over $800,000 and quickly went to work building a new Moton High School. The months became years. The NAACP lost its case, and appealed. Finally, three years after Barbara Johns and her young allies had raised the issue of discrimination and inequity, the U.S. Supreme Court sought to settle it.
“We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place,” a unanimous court declared in Brown v. Board of Education on May 17, 1954. “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
But school desegregation—in Prince Edward County, the South, and the nation—was still a long way from reality.
During the fall of 1954, J. Barrye Wall of the Farmville Herald and a local businessman named Robert B. Crawford became principal figures in the creation of a legal-political-action organization called Defenders of State Sovereignty and Individual Liberties. With strong backing from Virginia’s senior U.S. senator, Harry F. Byrd, and other leading politicians, the group soon built up a membership of several thousand persons across the state. The Defenders also gained quick control of the political machinery in Prince Edward County, and in the spring of 1955 persuaded the county board of supervisors and the leaders of the white parent-teacher association in the county to make plans for a shutdown of the public school system, and the creation of a segregated private school network for white children.
In truth, little persuasion was necessary. White public sentiment had swung fiercely against the Supreme Court decision. The board of supervisors was prepared to fund public education on a month-by-month basis as long as it remained completely segregated—and to cutoff all funds and padlock the doors as soon as any court ordered white and black children to attend the same school. As for the PTA, it led the way to formation of a foundation to operate private schools, and raised funds to pay the salaries of all white teachers in the event the public schools were closed.
In Congress Senator Byrd and Virginia Congressman Howard W. Smith introduced the Southern Manifesto in 1956, and used that document of defiance against the Supreme Court’s Brown decision to erect an almost solid wall of resistance across the South. And in the state capitol at Richmond, the Byrd machine—with ideas and encouragement from Richmond’s News Leader editor James Jackson Kilpatrick—developed a plan of “massive resistance” against the authority of the federal government.
As court orders implementing the Brown decision were handed down across the state in 1958, Governor J. Lindsay Almond followed the massive resistance plan and ordered the closing of some schools in Norfolk, Charlottesville, and Front Royal; but the courts quickly struck down the state laws upon which the strategy of defiance was based. Against the angry objection of Byrd, Governor Almond capitulated rather than risk being jailed for contempt of court, and massive resistance died a quick death.