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The Protest That Helped Spark A Revolution

I was born in Farmville Va., located in Prince Edward County It is my ancestral home. My parents, aunts, uncles and cousins attended R.R. Moton High School in Farmville. They experienced the injustices of a separate and unequal education policy in the school for "Negroes." 
Although I was born in Farmville, my parents were established in New York and that is where I grew up. It was because of family ties to Farmville and frequent visits back home to "Old Virginny" that I became aware of the news of a two-week student protest, which was led by Barbara Johns in April 1951. 
The protest of nonviolent direct action launched by the students attending the segregated and overcrowded Moton High School is often cited as the start of the civil rights movement. It led to a lawsuit, Davis v. County School Board, which became one of the cases making up the historic 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that rejected the premise of separate but equal education. 
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(The Martha E. Forrester Council of Women, formerly Council of Colored Women, composed of many retired teachers, raised $300,000 to buy the one-story Moton school and convert it to a center for the study of civil rights in education. For more information, visit their website: http://www.motonmuseum.org/)
Writing for the Organization of American Historians, Susan Bagby, a professor at Longwood College, noted: " Moton High School, named for Virginia educator Robert R. Moton, president of Tuskegee Institute, opened in 1939 designed to accommodate 180 students. By the time of the 1951 walkout, 450 African-American students were crowded into the school. The three 'tar paper' shacks erected by the school board beside the high school to add classroom space symbolized for Moton students the inequality in facilities and sparked the protest for a new high school in 1951."
While attending Hunter College in New York City in 1959, I was able to escape the misery of the South and its horrific Jim Crow laws. New York did have remnants of the Jim Crow laws, but for the most part, discrimination was more subtle and racism was institutionalized.
Virginians faced the day-to-day blatant realities of separate and unequal facilities. Even the newspaper, the Farmville Herald, had a little section for the Colored News.
And of course there were colored cemeteries.
"The Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors closed the public schools rather than desegregate. Thus, the arenas for the legal battles were the courts. This culminated in the 1964 Supreme Court case Griffin v. County School Board, which forced local authorities to fund public education and reopen the schools," Bagby writes.
President Kennedy sent U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy to Farmville to ensure the reopening of the public schools. Our national affiliate, the American Federation of Teachers, established its Human Rights Department at that time to address the concerns related to segregation in public schools. Dr. Barbara Van Blake, director of the AFT Human Rights Department, recalls how the AFT sent educators to Farmville to teach in the newly integrated schools. AFT President Sandra Feldman and other members of the United Federation of Teachers in New York City were also involved in this civil rights struggle.
Many private homes in Farmville were opened to the teachers from the North. My grandfather's home was one of those available to members of this delegation of teachers.
"The vast majority of the county's 1,700 African American students went without formal education between 1959 and 1964," Bagby writes, "although some families sent their children to relatives outside the area, and other students were placed by the American Friends Service Committee with families or private schools in the Northeast and Midwest." 
Hence, my cousins came to New York and New Jersey to complete their education. Barbara Johns, the young student activist, was sent to Alabama for her safety. Years later, the Johns family moved to the nation's capital. Their Farmville home was burned to the ground.
"The students who lost five years of public education have been variously dubbed 'the lost generation' and 'the crippled generation' by reporters and researchers studying the long-term effects of educational deprivation," Bagby says. It is sad to sa, yet true, that white students who could not afford to attend the segregated private schools were also a part of the lost generation.
The problems faced by one member of our society become everyone's problem.
After visiting Farmville, Va., in the 1950s -- after not being permitted to sit at a counter in the local Woolworth's or the local pharmacy -- after remembering the colored-only balcony in Farmville's movie theater -- it was easy for me to return to Hunter College and participate in the first march on Washington with a rainbow coalition of college coeds from around New York state.
Our caravan of buses left New York City at 3 a.m., joined by students from Bard, New York University, Sarah Lawrence, Barnard and all the City University of New York colleges. 
With singer Harry Belafonte a part of our delegation, we marched along Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Lincoln Monument. Neither the president nor any member of his Cabinet greeted us.
Our march is often forgotten in official accounts of the civil rights movement, but our fervor carried forward. Protests continued in areas surrounding the University of Pennsylvania's campus. As a graduate student at Penn in 1960, I helped the undergraduates make placards, which were used to protest Woolworth's discriminatory policies and Tastykake's discriminatory hiring practices. 
Today's problems with racial discrimination are only mirrors to the former years of slavery in the North. Lest we forget, even the nation's capital had its problems with segregated buses, schools and facilities -- again, remnants of slavery.
Fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, the New York City public schools and housing are still virtually segregated by economics. Minorities, also known as the poor, rest at the bottom of the economic ladder. They live in poorer neighborhoods known for their failing schools, high crime rates and inadequate services.
Teachers in these inner-city schools are always struggling to get the necessities for their students. When lobbying in Albany does not do enough, many teachers are forced to take out-of-pocket monies to create the proper classroom environments. But despite their efforts, the schools become as poor as the neighborhoods they serve. 
The impoverished schools are placed on the bottom of a list for repairs and renovation. Crumbling ceilings, walls, floors become the daily realities of students and teachers. Mice, roaches and more are a part of the setting for lessons unrelated to science. And both students and teachers become caught in the crossfire on the streets and in the schools as crime makes daily inroads.
"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," said Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It is evident that we cannot build a strong foundation for this nation on a foundation of misery for any one of its citizens. There is more work to be done. 
Brown v. Board of Education was merely a beginning. 
We must press on.

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