April 12, 2001
FARMVILLE, Va- On Monday, April 23, citizens of this community, joined by veterans of the civil rights movement from many parts of the country, will gather to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the beginning of that movement. It was on April 23, 1951-also a Monday-that students at Prince Edward County’s all-black Robert R. Moton High School, led by a 16-year-old, walked out of their woefully overcrowded classrooms to demand a new high school equal to that available to white students. Within a month their protest had led to the filing of a suit against the county demanding, not a separate and genuinely equal building, but the desegregation of public schools altogether. Increasingly, historians and commentators are calling the Moton student strike the beginning of the civil rights movement.
On this April 23, hundreds of people from this area will gather at the old Moton High School. Now a National Historic Landmark, the building will formally be opened as the Robert R. Moton Museum: A Center for the Study of Civil Rights in Education. There the community will honor the heroism of the 450 students who, in daring to protest inequality, “forever changed the landscape of American education,” as The Washington Post recently put it.
The ceremony, which will begin at 10:00 that morning, will feature keynote speaker Juan Williams, author, journalist, and historian of the civil rights movement. Host of the syndicated television show America’s Black Forum and of National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation, Williams is the author of Eyes on the Prize and Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary. Also speaking will be attorney Oliver W. Hill, one of the NAACP lawyers who filed the local case in 1951 and carried it to the United States Supreme Court as part of the monumental Brown v. Board of Education case. That case, decided in 1954, declared racially segregated public schools unconstitutional throughout the country. The Albany Freedom Singers, who got their start in the Civil Rights Movement in southwest Georgia in the early 1960s, will provide music.
Barbara Johns, the 16-year-old junior who conceived of the Moton protest, is no longer living. However, two other student leaders of 1951, John Stokes and John Watson, will reflect on the strike and its national consequences. The highlight of the program will be a reenactment of the student walkout, featuring more than 50 of the original strikers as well as current high school students-who attend an academically strong, desegregated school thanks to the action the Moton students took in 1951.
On Sunday morning, April 22, as a prelude to the anniversary program, pastors at many Farmville area churches, black and white, will preach on racial justice and reconciliation. At 7:30 that evening, in the auditorium of Prince Edward County High School, the Farmville Area Ministerial Association will hold a community worship service. The sermon will be preached by Rev. Eric Griffin, pastor of St. Stephen United Church of Christ in Greensboro, N. C., and son of the late Rev. L. Francis Griffin. The latter became the student strikers’ adviser in 1951 and led the civil rights movement in Prince Edward throughout the ’50s and ’60s. Music will be provided by the Albany Freedom Singers and a community choir.