The 16-Year-Old Who Fought Segregation: A Courageous Protest by Barbara Johns Helped Lead to a Supreme Court Ruling 65 Years Ago That Segregated Public Schools Were Unconstitutional

By Bubar, Joe | New York Times Upfront, April 22, 2019 | Go to article overview

The 16-Year-Old Who Fought Segregation: A Courageous Protest by Barbara Johns Helped Lead to a Supreme Court Ruling 65 Years Ago That Segregated Public Schools Were Unconstitutional


Bubar, Joe, New York Times Upfront


Barbara Johns had finally had enough. It was the spring of 1951, and her school, the all-black Robert Russa Moton High School in Prince Edward County, Virginia, was literally falling apart. The ceilings were so cracked that Barbara, a 16-year-old junior, and her classmates had to use umbrellas indoors when it rained. The toilets in the one-story building barely worked, and there was no gym, cafeteria, or lockers.

At the time, Virginia was one of 21 states where segregation in public schools was required or permitted by law. The schools for blacks and those for whites were supposed to be equal, but they never were. The all-white Farmville High School, just minutes from Moton, for example, had spacious classrooms, modern heating, and a real cafeteria.

Frustrated with the school district's refusal to pay for upgrades, Barbara rallied hundreds of her classmates to walk out of their school in protest on April 23, 1951.

"There wasn't any fear," she would later recall. "I just thought, This is your moment. Seize it.'"

The students, with lawyers from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (N.A.A.C.P.), soon filed suit against the district, demanding the integration of public schools in Prince Edward County. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it was bundled with similar lawsuits challenging segregated schools in other states. The combined cases became known as Brown v. Board of Education.

On May 17, 1954, the Court ruled 9-0 that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional--a landmark decision still hailed as a defining moment in civil rights history 65 years later. 7 Before Brown, "schoolchildren of different races didn't go to school together in any significant number in any state, not just in the South," says Rachel Devlin, the author of A Girl Stands at the Door: The Generation of Young Women Who Desegregated America's Schools. "So it was hard to imagine.... There was this real sense of 'Could it even be done?"'

Students on Strike

Brown was a reversal of the Supreme Court's position on segregation. In 1896 in Plessy v. Ferguson, the Court had established the doctrine of "separate but equal" that served as the legal underpinning for segregation (see Timeline, p. 20). In most of the South, state and local laws required separation of the races in transportation, restaurants, schools, and other public spaces. De facto segregation also existed in the North, even if most states there didn't have laws mandating or permitting it.

Barbara's school, Moton, had been built in the 1930s to accommodate 180 students, but by 1950, 450 students were enrolled. Teachers often had to hold classes in wooden shacks covered with black tar paper or on school buses.

"We wanted so much here and had so little," Barbara later said. "And we had talents and abilities here that weren't really being realized."

In the fall of 1950, Barbara convinced Carrie Stokes, the student body president, and her brother John, who was vice president, to go with her to school board meetings to pressure the district into financing renovations.

Meeting after meeting, however, they kept hearing the same refrain from the board: "Soon."

Barbara grew tired of waiting. What they needed to do, she decided, was go on strike, and stay out of school until the district acted.

Barbara organized a group of juniors and seniors to help her execute her plan. On April 23, they lured their principal, M. Boyd Jones, out of school by making up a story about some students who were getting in trouble with the police downtown. When Principal Jones rushed to check on the phony situation, the group passed around notes, calling for an assembly in the auditorium. They had signed the notes "BJ."--Barbara's and Principal Jones's initials.

Hundreds of students crammed into the auditorium, expecting to see their principal onstage. …

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