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Hullabaloo


Sunday, May 18, 2014

 
A Great American Hero whose name you probably don't know

by digby

The 60th anniversary of Brown vs Board of Education is rightly being celebrated. It marked a sea change in American culture and the escalation of the Civil Rights Movement into a truly urgent national cause. But there are a lot of back stories of which I have been unaware and I have to say that as I read about them now, I'm astonished by the courage of the people who literally took their lives in their hands to stand up for their rights and demand equality under the law.

This is one of the stories I'd never heard, about a 16 year old high school student named Barbara Rose Johns, whose actions in 1951 formed part of the Brown decision. She lived in Virginia and went to school in an overcrowded, dilapidated, run down building with no indoor plumbing:
Sometime in the winter of 1950 Barbara had an idea.

“The plan was to assemble together the student council members,” she said. “From this, we would formulate plans to go on strike. We would make signs and I would give a speech stating our dissatisfaction and we would march out [of] the school and people would hear us and see us and understand our difficulty and would sympathize with our plight and would grant us our new school building and our teachers would be proud and the students would learn more and it would be grand.”

With this vision in mind — and with the knowledge that those who did not have a vision to sustain their risky and courageous scheming might be more of a liability than an asset — she began organizing in secret with four other students. By early spring in 1951, they strategically built a coordinating caucus of 15 trusted students who had key ties to different communities of the student body. They kept the date of their event quiet until their decision the evening before. At times the group even sent out false information to head off any interference from so-called Uncle Toms, the name for those who would undermine them. The plan was to trick the principal to leave the building, then call an assembly so that all of the students could decide together to march out to petition the county superintendent for a new high school.

They were bold, smart and somewhat fearful of ending up in jail. So they asked a brother of a student in the core group who was home from college what they should do if they were arrested and held in jail.

“And he said, ‘how many students are in your school?’” John Stokes recounted to the civil rights oral history project “Voices of Freedom.” “We said 400-something. He said, ‘how big is the Farmville jail?’ And we knew then we were on a roll. And the rest is history.”

On April 23, the decoy phone call came that a couple of truants were causing trouble at the bus station downtown, and the principal left to take care of business. Quickly, the core students distributed forged announcements from the principal calling for an immediate school assembly in the auditorium. The planning caucus was gathered on stage; everyone was paying attention. After the caucus leaders asked the teachers to leave the auditorium, Barbara laid out the plan to go out on strike in protest of overcrowding and inadequate facilities. It was reported that almost all of the more than 450 students were supportive, even though the principal returned and tried to talk them out of it. They marched down to the county courthouse to air their grievances, but because of segregation, the white press and whites in general didn’t take much notice.

The next day, when the student strike committee tried to meet with the school superintendent, they were refused and threatened with retaliatory expulsions.

By this point, Barbara and her crew were in touch with the local NAACP leadership and supportive clergy. At first, the elders were not encouraging; all the efforts aimed at getting equal facilities nationally were going nowhere, and the difficult work of fighting segregation was widely seen as the more effective path. Committing to the work of desegregation would serve to show the NAACP that the students were serious and worthy of support; otherwise, the NAACP would not be involved.

The students had to take a vote on this, as they did with all decisions, and it was a hard one. As Stokes remembers, they didn’t go on strike for integration but rather for the seemingly simpler demand of better educational facilities and opportunities. They were keenly aware of the value of their existing teachers and their tight-knit, supportive community, and they rightly feared losing these benefits in the process of desegregation. After a difficult meeting, the central caucus voted to commit to integration — passed by only one vote — thereby allowing the NAACP to take the case.

With NAACP support, one of the largest ever community-wide meetings was held in the local civil rights church. Parents were asked to sign up to show support for the students and the lawsuit ahead. The white press also finally decided to cover this meeting — even though it had refused the students’ requests to report on the previous three actions. Knowing that having white media at this sensitive meeting would be difficult, the students turned the journalists away.

At one point, one of the respected adults raised objections to moving forward. Again it was Barbara who spoke out and rallied the crowd to not listen to “any Uncle Toms,” prodding the assembled students and parents into taking a courageous step for the community. Although described as very quiet and lady-like, when it came to this issue, Stokes said that “she became a tiger … put on gloves and started fighting.” Buoyed by the student’s commitment, the parents and students collectively decided to strike until the end of the school year and to support the lawsuit.

A month after the walkout, the NAACP filed the case — Dorothy E. Davis et al v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, Virginia — and Barbara was sent to live with relatives in Alabama out of fear for her safety.

That's a long excerpt from a much longer essay. It's well worth reading. Imagine what kind of courage it took to do this --- and contemplate the radical style she used to get it done.

This was 1951. And that case the NAACP took that day became part of the larger case that changed the course of American history. There were many, many examples of such heroes and the vast majority of us don't know their names. But there would never be any progress if it weren't for brave citizens who step up, at potentially great cost to themselves, to lead the way.

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