March 19, 2001
FARMVILLE, VA- Award-winning journalist and author Juan Williams will headline the program on Monday, April 23 commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the historic student strike at Robert R. Moton High School here-a strike which some historians now see as the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. Williams, the nation’s leading popular historian of that movement, will be joined on the program by John Stokes, one of the leaders of the student strike; Rev. Eric Griffin, son of the central leader of the movement in Prince Edward County; and the Albany (Georgia) Freedom Singers, who got their start in the civil rights struggle in southwest Georgia in the early sixties. The commemoration, sponsored by the Robert R. Moton Museum, will also mark the formal opening of the Museum for regular hours.
The story of the desegregation of the public schools in this central Virginia county is a dramatic one, full of twists and turns. The conditions under which students at all-black Moton High School were forced to study-particularly the county’s decision in 1948 to deal with tremendous overcrowding by erecting three “tar paper shacks” around the central brick building- were separate and dramatically unequal. On April 23, 1951, a sixteen-year -old junior at Moton, Barbara Rose Johns-niece of civil rights pioneer Rev. Vernon Johns-led the students out of their classes to protest those conditions and dramatize their demand for a new school.
Within days the students contacted NAACP lawyers in Richmond, who agreed to enter the Prince Edward case provided the students and their parents were willing to file suit against the county, not just for a new school, but for the desegregation of public education. That suit, Davis v. Prince Edward, was one of five cases taken to the U. S. Supreme Court under the collective heading of the lead case, Brown v. Board of Education. Handed down in 1954, the historic Brown decision held that that racially segregated public schools were inherently unequal and therefore unconstitutional.
As part of Virginia’s policy of “massive resistance” to court-ordered desegregation, Prince Edward closed its public schools from 1959 to 1964.
Only a second Supreme Court Decision, Griffin v. Prince Edward, forced the county to reopen its schools-which, remarkably enough, have since become both biracial and educationally strong. [For additional details of the student strike, the closing of the schools, the court decisions, and the restoration of Prince Edward’s public schools, click on History.]
Commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the student strike-for which more than fifty of the original strikers are expected to return-will begin on Sunday, April 22. Pastors at a number of Farmville churches, black and white, will preach that morning on racial justice and brotherhood. At 7:30 that evening, in the auditorium of Prince Edward County High School, Rev. Eric Griffin will preach at a community worship service. Rev. Griffin, pastor of St. Stephen United Church of Christ in Greensboro, N.C., is the youngest son of Rev. L. Francis Griffin, who both advised the student strikers in 1951 and went on to lead the Civil Rights Movement in Prince Edward throughout the fifties and sixties.
At 10:00 on the morning of April 23-a Monday in 2001 as it was in 1951-hundreds of local citizens, as well as political figures, Civil Rights veterans, and observers from other parts of the country, will gather at the Moton Museum to commemorate the silver anniversary of the heroic student strike. The keynote address will be given by Juan Williams, author of Eyes on the Prize and , Fox television news analyst, and host of the syndicated America’s Black Forum and National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation (www.thurgoodmarshall.com). John Stokes, one of the student leaders of the 1951 walkout, will talk about that experience. Music will be provided by the Albany Freedom Singers, led by Rutha Mae Harris, one of the original SNCC Freedom Singers of the early sixties.
The climactic event will be a reenactment of the walkout itself. The original student strikers will again march out of the Moton School building, as they did exactly fifty years earlier- now to be joined by current high school students, black and white, to march once more to the county court house, where ceremonies will conclude.
On that same fiftieth anniversary, the Moton Museum will formally open for regular hours. Housed in the former Moton School building-since 1998 a National Historic Landmark-the Museum will be a center for the study of civil rights in education. Its exhibits, designed in accordance with a plan developed by the National Park Service, will eventually cover all phases of the struggle for equal educational opportunity, not only in Prince Edward County but throughout the state and the nation. The Museum’s first exhibit, constructed with a grant from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, will cover the Prince Edward story from about 1940 to 2000, focusing particularly on the student walkout.