“There wasn't any fear, I just thought—this is your moment. Seize it!”
— Barbara Johns, 1979, remembering her role in the student strike of 1951
On the morning of April 23, 1951, Moton teachers received notes requesting they bring their students to the auditorium. They filed in from the classrooms and from outside, where students attended class in the “tar paper shacks,” erected to deal with overcrowding. Built in 1939 and designed to accommodate 180 students, the school housed over 450 students by 1951.
Instead of the principal, a committee of students, led by sixteen-year-old junior Barbara Johns, had called the assembly. After asking the teachers to leave, Johns recounted the inadequate school conditions the students faced and exhorted them to go on strike in pro-test until county officials agreed to build a new school. Convinced by Johns’ compelling words, the students marched out onto the school grounds; many carried signs covertly made for the protest.
In the wake of the strike, the student planning committee met with the school board chairman and the school superintendent to make their demands. They also consulted Reverend L. Francis Griffin, pastor of First Baptist Church, who had worked through the Moton Parent-Teachers Association to lobby the school board to build a new school. Barbara and Carrie wrote a letter to attorneys Oliver Hill and Spottswood Robinson, who were affiliated with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and asked them to take their case. The lawyers agreed on two conditions: the students needed their parents’ support, and more importantly, the students had to be willing to challenge the constitutionality of segregated education. Suing to get a new school was no longer enough. Reverend Griffin’s First Baptist Church was the site of mass meetings with NAACP officials to explain to the community what a court case challenging segregation might entail. After heated debate, the community voted overwhelmingly to support the students in their case.
APRIL 23, 1951
On the morning of April 23, 1951 several students forged written announcements of a school assembly, calling all classes to the auditorium. Teachers were then escorted from the auditorium. Instead of the principal, student Barbara Johns appeared on the stage and announced the strike. She asked the students to join with the organizing committee, a group of ten Moton students, in a strike to demand better facilities. The student body as a whole agreed to join them in the effort.