Up Close with Civil Rights History

Article excerpt

Byline: Justin Kmitch


For 57 years, John Stokes kept his role in ending segregation to himself.

On Thursday, he shared his story of leading "The Manhattan Project" with eighth-graders at Hill Middle School in Naperville.

"Sometimes it just hurts to remember, so I kept it inside," said Stokes, who was in town promoting his book "Students on Strike: Jim Crow, Civil Rights, Brown and Me."

"But it was time for this story to be told."

Hill librarian Karen Ebner said eighth-grade social studies students have been reading the book in class while studying the 1950s.

"They all read it and now they're meeting a man who helped change the course of history in their gymnasium," Ebner said. "How many students get to do that?"

Growing up on his family's Kingsville, Va., farm, Stokes knew going to school, even if it was only a rundown shack with leaky tarpaper walls, was his ticket to a better life than his parents and grandparents had.

More than 400 black students crammed into the 180-seat school all with the same vision. But on April 23, 1951, Stokes and several others decided that the school with a potbelly stove for heat and no running water, indoor plumbing or cafeteria, was no longer good enough.

On that day, he and a group of fellow students staged a strike at R.R. Moton High School that helped bring an end to segregation in Virginia's school system and eventually throughout the country.

"We have a cliche that we used: 'We built bricks out of straw,'" he said. …