“A Gentlemen’s Fight”

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The Reverend L. Francis Griffin sat in a metal folding chair in the basement assembly hall of the First Baptist Church in Farmville, Virginia. His modified Afro, bushy eyebrows, and Vandyke beard were flecked with gray. Behind horn-rimmed glasses, his brown eyes seemed to suggest a mixture of attentiveness and fatigue, of serenity and sadness.

He had been the pastor of First Baptist for nearly half of his sixty-one years. In the assembly hall where he sat, he had conducted countless hundreds of meetings: with members of his congregation, church committees, Sunday-school children—and with striking high school students, civil rights groups, attorneys, the press. Twenty years ago the Reverend Griffin was the central figure in a long-running effort to achieve desegregation and racial equality for the black citizens of Farmville and Prince Edward County. Now, in the quiet repose of a weekday morning, he pondered a visitor’s question for a moment before responding in a baritone voice rich with the accent and cadence of Southside Virginia. “Who won? It depends on how you look at it. If you’re talking about integration in a local sense, then it could be said that the whites won, because there’s still a lot of segregation and inequality around here. But if you’re looking at it on a national scale, I’d say we won a victory. I believe you could say the black people of Prince Edward County saved the public schools in the South, particularly in Virginia. Had we given in, I think perhaps massive resistance might have become the order of the day throughout the South. So in that sense, we won a tremendous victory.”

In his office at the Farmville Herald, barely two blocks from Griffin’s Main Street church, publisher J. Barrye Wall, Sr., recalled Prince Edward County’s crucible of the 1950’s with considerable reluctance. Too much had been said and written about it, he asserted firmly: “Accounts in the national press were all so one-sided. It was a long time ago, and I don’t have the time or the interest to look back. I don’t want to go into it any further.”

Barrye Wall is eighty years old, a portly man with white hair and friendly blue eyes. He is a Southern gentleman in the classic mold—formal, courtly, unfailingly polite. Being reminded of an earlier time of discord did not please him, and he searched carefully for proper words to dismiss the inquiry: “My position was right. I stand by everything I wrote about it. It’s up to others to make judgments now. I'm through.” Having said that, he added what amounted to a personal conclusion, a judgment of his own: “I have never treated a Negro with discourtesy—or been treated that way by one of them. I respect them all. But I was and am for separate education for white and black. We were defending States’ rights, state sovereignty. The principles for which Lee and the South fought weren’t settled at Appomattox—and still aren’t. The South lost—we lost—but it’s not settled.”

And so, twenty-eight years after the beginning of a school-desegregation controversy in Prince Edward County that attracted national attention and resulted in one of the most significant Supreme Court decisions of all time, it is still unclear exactly who won what. L. Francis Griffin and J. Barrye Wall were principal figures in that conflict—personal symbols of diametrically opposed philosophies. For all their differences (and they are many, and vast), the two men brought some common characteristics—pride, confidence, determination, stubbornness—to what has been aptly labeled “a gentlemen’s fight.” They inspired and influenced large followings—Griffin with the power of his voice, Wall with the power of his press. Now, in retrospect, they speak with ambivalence about the winners and losers, talk instead of “stalemate” and “cold war” and “peaceful coexistence” and “unsettled issues”—and they are not alone.

Melancholy echoes of the Civil War linger in the recesses of private thought about the past quarter of a century of life in Prince Edward County. Farmville, the county seat, was on Robert E. Lee’s route of retreat in 1865, and Appomattox is just twenty-five miles away to the west. Now as then, blacks ponder the meaning of a “victory” that has borne meager fruit, and whites reflect upon a “defeat” that has left attitudes unaltered, lessons unlearned.

Of all the battlegrounds in the struggle for civil rights and racial equality in the South in the nineteen fifties and sixties, none seemed more unlikely—or in the end more inexplicable—than Prince Edward County. It was a conservative rural jurisdiction populated mainly by small-acreage farmers (slightly more of them white than black), and its Old South traditions of white paternalism and black deference seemed to have survived intact from the nineteenth century. Lacking a history of either radicalism or violence—those being considered forms of extreme behavior unbecoming well-mannered people—the county seemed incapable of producing a wellspring of black demands for equality or a massive white counterforce of reaction and resistance.

But consider what actually happened in Prince Edward County, in startling contradiction to its past: