“Never feel helpless…Never feel like there’s nothing you can do…With the right vision and the right kind of organization, amazing things can happen.”
— Dr. Oliver W. Hill Jr., paraphrasing his father
In the Spring of 1951 the student body of Robert Russa Moton High School, in Prince Edward County, Virginia, walked out in protest of unequal educational facilities. The resulting school desegregation lawsuit was part of the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, which concluded that “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.
The struggle for civil rights took place not just on buses, at lunch counters, or on the streets, but also in classrooms and in courtrooms. The Prince Edward story—the story of the journey from segregated to integrated public schools—is told in the following pages. It is a story in which children played a significant role. The 1951 Moton student strike launched a thirteen-year court battle to achieve educational equality. Davis v. Prince Edward was the only student-initiated case of the five that comprised Brown v. Board. At the local level, Prince Edward County was the only county in the nation to close its schools for five years, between 1959 and 1964, rather than desegregate. In Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, the Supreme Court intervened again to reopen the schools.
The Prince Edward story reveals how everyday citizens can make extraordinary change in America.
A Call to Action
“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
“White and colored children shall not be taught in the same school.”
— Article IX, Section 140, Constitution of Virginia, 1902
THE COURT SPEAKS
“We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
— Chief Justice Earl Warren in Brown v. Board of Education, May 17, 1954
“If we can organize the southern states for massive resistance to this order I think in time the rest of the country will really that racial integration is not going to be accepted in the South.”
— United States Senator Harry F. Byrd, 1956
PRINCE EDWARD COUNTY SAYS NO
“It is with the most profound regret that we have been compelled to take this action. We do not act in defiance of any law or any court. Above all we do not act with hostility toward the Negro people of Prince Edward County.”
— Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors, 1959
“We may observe, with as much sadness as 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 pubic education are Communist China, North Vietnam, Sarawak, Singapore, British Honduras—and Prince Edward County Virginia.”