Perseverance and Unity

'We have a modern-day civil rights battle playing itself out in our own backyard

Meet Barbara Rose Johns. At just sixteen years of age, she led the 1951 student general strike over inadequate conditions at an all-Black high school in Prince Edward County, Virginia. The two-week protest led to a lawsuit that eventually became one of the four cases combined into the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling that desegregated America’s public school system.

Johns’ fight for justice is depicted in an awe-inspiring monument on the grounds of the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, which I visited over the Christmas holiday. Completed in 2008 and called the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial, the granite structure inscribed with quotes is flanked by eighteen bronze statues of Johns and others who played a role in the historic event. According to Wikipedia, Johns “forged notes to teachers telling them to bring their students to the auditorium for a special announcement. When the school’s students showed up, Johns took the stage and persuaded the school to strike to protest poor school conditions. Over 450 walked out and marched to the homes of members of the school board, who refused to see them.” If Johns isn’t considered the Rosa Parks of Virginia, she should be.

I grew up in Virginia, and I don’t remember learning about Johns’ role in the civil rights movement, so it’s wonderful to see such an important piece of history re-introduced to citizens and memorialized in such a significant way. As I admired the memorial, my mind began to wander back to Madison. I’d just come from touring the inside of Virginia’s Capitol, where a friend who works in  the building told me she’s worried about the specter of Wisconsin-style protests during their 2012 legislative session starting in January. Their Republican governor and legislature are apparently gunning to push through conservative reforms similar to some in Wisconsin that will likely generate extreme heat from the opposition. I’d be shocked if 100,000 people show up at their Capitol, but I certainly understand her anxiety. It’s a volatile and unpredictable time here, there and everywhere else.

But I wasn’t really thinking about last year’s protests as I stood before Barbara Johns and her contemporaries. I was thinking about Kaleem Caire and his band of supporters. Six decades after Barbara Johns refused to abide by the debilitating status quo in the south—and won—Caire protested poor conditions for minorities in the long-desegregated halls of our public schools in the north—and lost. Now I am in no way applauding Virginia and condemning Wisconsin. After all, the Johns memorial is the first statue ever erected on the Capitol grounds to depict African Americans and women in prominent roles. On top of that, guess whose statue graces the lawn on the opposite side of the Capitol? Harry F. Byrd, Sr., the Virginia governor and U.S. senator who led efforts to close public schools— including Johns’—rather than integrate them.

My native state is awash in moral contradictions. But so are most places inhabited by the human condition, and Wisconsin is experiencing its own head-spinning ethical dilemmas, seemingly at every turn. In the case of Caire, who most of us know by now heads up the city’s premier civil rights organization, the Urban League, he and his Madison Prep charter school were met with resistance by a school board who was at odds not with the plan’s purpose but with its methodology. Of course that’s one of the many differences between Barbara Johns’ and Kaleem Caire’s struggles—no one is opposed to higher-achieving minority students, at least we hope not. And yet, we have a modern-day civil rights battle playing itself out in our own backyard. It’s painful to watch.

Etched in the dark stone on each side of the Civil Rights Memorial are two quotes, one from Johns and one from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who argued the Brown v. Board of Education case for the plaintiffs as chief counsel for the NAACP. The words hang prophetic above the statues, powerful messages of perseverance and unity.

“It seemed like reaching for the moon,” said Johns of her uphill integration battle.

“The legal system can force open doors and sometimes even knock down walls, but it cannot build bridges. That job belongs to you and me,” wrote Thurgood Marshall.

You and me.

Brennan Nardi is editor of Madison Magazine. Comments and letters can be sent to 7025 Raymond Rd., Madison, WI 53719, or Letters we publish may be edited for space and clarity.

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