Churches unite in honor of unsung student Civil Rights heroesStudent demonstrators in Downtown Farmville, Virginia, July 1963. Photo courtesy of The Richmond Times-Dispatch.
On Sunday, July 28th, 1963, just one month before the March on Washington and Dr. King’s I Have A Dream speech, nearly two dozen young people were arrested for attempting to desegregate Downtown Farmville churches. Fifty years to the date, these churches — now integrated — will come together in honor of these unsung local Civil Rights heroes.
Farmville Baptist, Farmville United Methodist, First Baptist and Johns Memorial Episcopal churches, along with the Moton Museum, Farmville Police and the Town of Farmville, invite the entire community to join them for a Kneel-In 50th Anniversary March on Sunday, July 28th, 2013, beginning at 3:00 p.m. inside First Baptist Church on Main Street.
The four-church program and walking tour will retrace the steps of the 1963 student activists. Reflections, prayers and remarks will be offered at each church site. Dress is casual. A Farmville Area Bus (FAB) shuttle will be available for those unable to walk the entire route.
The 50th anniversary program not only commemorates the event, says Hampden-Sydney College religion professor and Moton Program Chair Dr. Michael Utzinger, “but acknowledges the positive potential that persons of faith can have to promote racial reconciliation in our community.”
Leading the walking tour will be the Rev. J. Samuel Williams, pastor of Levi Baptist Church in Green Bay. In the summer of 1963, Rev. Williams, along with fellow local pastor Rev. Goodwin Douglas, organized several student demonstrations in Downtown Farmville. On the morning of July 28th, 1963, a mass meeting of nearly five hundred people was held at First Baptist Church. After the meeting, small groups fanned out to integrate other downtown churches. The students were admitted inside Johns Memorial Episcopal Church, sitting with Longwood dean Dr. C.G. Gordon Moss (consequently, Moss was stripped of his church officership). Another group was denied entrance to Farmville United Methodist. After being denied entrance to Farmville Baptist, the group proceeded to pray and sing hymns on the church steps and was ultimately arrested for “disturbing the public worship of God.” The arrests are believed to be the first in the South resulting from an attempted “kneel-in,” writes historian Christopher Bonastia.
The summer of 1963 marked a pivotal moment in Prince Edward County’s Civil Rights history. The student demonstrations sparked renewed national interest in the county’s five-year public school closing. The summer ended with an announcement from the Kennedy Administration that free education would return in September through the Prince Edward Free Schools. The kneel-ins also “started a process” in downtown churches, says Dr. Utzinger — the process of self-reflection and the ultimate rejection of segregation. On Sunday, July 28th, 2013, the doors of these churches will be open to all.