GRAPHIC ILLUSTRATION: Doug Dobery
by Jack R. Johnson
If you really want to know about the beginning of the civil rights movement in this country, you don’t start with Martin Luther King, you don’t even start with Rosa Parks. No, you begin with a young lady named Barbara Johns in the backwater of Farmville, Virginia.
The landmark legislation that finally drove a nail through the heart of Jim Crow—Brown vs. the Stanford Board of Education—began in central Virginia, about 60 miles due west of Richmond with a young girl named Barbara Johns. A precocious, 11th grader, she couldn’t stand the tarpaper shacks without central heat or running water that the all-white school board had decided were adequate to contain the overflow of students at the all-black Moton High School. Originally, the high school was built with a capacity for only 180 students. By 1950, it contained over 450 students.
On April 23, 1951, Barbara Johns convinced her classmates that they should walk out until a new building was under construction. When the NAACP got wind of their activity they persuaded the students to drop their request for a new school and instead demand that the court strike down the Virginia law requiring segregated schools—Plessy vs. Ferguson.
Unfortunately, Barbara Johns never received the historical recognition she deserved because of threats from the local white community in Farmville. Things came to a head when they burnt a cross in front of the all-black Moton High School. Fearing for Barbara’s safety, her parents sent her to live with her uncle Reverend Vernon Johns in Montgomery, Alabama. Dorothy Davis’s name, another teen from Moton High appears on the lawsuit which eventually became combined with the Brown case that got heard in the U.S. Supreme Court. That case, Brown vs. the Stanford Board of Education, ended legalized segregation in publicly funded schools. Shortly after the Supreme Court ruling, the Johns family, which had been out of town one weekend, got a call. Their own house had been burned to the ground.
That was just the beginning of the reactionary counter attack. The Virginia white political establishment, under the leadership of Harry Flood Byrd, responded with a so called ‘Southern Manifesto’ out of which grew the movement called ‘massive resistance.’
Massive resistance was designed to shut down all public high schools to blacks in Virginia. Much of the South followed Virginia’s lead. Rather than allow blacks to attend schools with whites, the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors closed its public schools. Later, they provided tax money to support private, white-only schools. After multiple legal battles, Prince Edward County, where Barbara staged her initial school strikes, was one of the last places to re-open its public schools.
Prince Edward County gained national notoriety when Robert F. Kennedy declared in 1963:
“We may observe with much sadness and irony that, outside of Africa, south of the Sahara, where education is still a difficult challenge, the only places on earth known not to provide free public education are Communist China, North Vietnam, Sarawak, Singapore, British Honduras—and Prince Edward County, Virginia.”
Barbara Johns finally received the recognition she deserved nearly a century later, on April 23, 2018. Sixty-seven years after she helped lead a walkout to protest inequality in segregated Virginia schools, the Commonwealth of Virginia celebrated the first-ever Barbara Johns Day.