Above: Virginia Civil Rights Memorial at the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, Virginia, with a figure of Johns in the foreground. Pursuing desegregation “seemed like reaching for the moon,” she said. “It was all pretty hard to grasp.”
STUDENTS AND TEACHERS at overcrowded, all-black Moton High School in Farmville, Virginia, received a shock when they gathered for what seemed like a routine spring assembly on this date in 1951. Standing on the stage, sixteen-year-old Barbara Johns — the principal was nowhere to be seen — asked that students and faculty to walk out in protest of the school’s overcrowded and run-down condition. “Don’t be afraid, just follow us out,” she said.
Johns had planned the walkout with four other students, with the conspirators forging a note from the principal to bring the school together in the auditorium. With the principal lured away by a false report about student trouble downtown, the other 400-some inhabitants of Moton High, built to hold less than half that many, followed Johns out of the building. Many cheered and some held hand-lettered signs that announced, “We Want a New School or None at All” and “Down with the Tar-Paper Shacks.”
That afternoon, the students wrote a letter to the NAACP (The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) in Richmond, Virginia, describing the school’s disgraceful condition and asking for help. Members of the Ku Klux Klan become aware of the student protest and burned a cross in the Johns’ family lawn a few days later. This was an attempt to intimidate the family and discourage any intention of fighting the separate-but-equal law that kept blacks and whites in segregated schools.
Johns’ family sent her to live with relatives in another state, but that didn’t slow the movement she’d began. A month after the Moton walkout, NAACP lawyers filed suit in federal court challenging the separate-but-equal statute that generally resulted in poor funding for all-black schools. The Moton suit would be one of the five cases reviewed in the Brown vs. The Board Of Education court case that resulted in the Supreme Court declaring an end to segregation in public schools.