History, History Column

Celebrating Women’s History Month

by Sarah Becker

Copyright ©2021 Sarah Becker


Celebrating Women’s History Month

“I am absolutely convinced that the forces of ill will in our nation, the people on the wrong side in our nation—the extreme rightists of our nation, have often used time more effectively than the people of good will,” Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote in 1967 in The Future of Integration .  “And it may well be that this generation has to repent, not merely for the vitriolic words and violent action of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say ‘wait on time.’”

After more than 110 years, Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s statue has been removed from the Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol.  If Virginia’s Lost Cause advocates are riled others are quietly rejoicing.  March is Women’s History Month and the Commonwealth has chosen to honor sixteen year-old, black student activist Barbara Rose Johns (1935-1991) instead.

“It was time that Negroes were treated equally with whites, time that they had a decent school, time for students themselves to do something about it,” Johns explained.  “There wasn’t any fear.  I just thought—this is your moment.  Seize it!”

Barbara Johns 1951 “plan was daring, even risky: Convince the entire all-black student body to walk out of [Farmville, Virginia’s, Robert Russa Moton High School] and not return until the government gave them a bigger, better building—one like the white students had,” The New York Times noted in 2019.  “The case Johns would join, Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, would not only have the largest group of plaintiffs; it would also be the only one that was led by students.”

The Davis case was one of five consolidated cases known as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (347 US 483).  On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that racial segregation in schools was unconstitutional.  Virginia’s Byrd machine resisted.

“Human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability,” Dr. King continued.   “It comes through the tireless effort and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God.  Without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation.”

“We all know the history of the system of segregation,” Dr. King made clear.  “It had its legal beginning in 1896 when the U.S. Supreme Court rendered a decision [known] as the Plessy vs. Ferguson decision.  This established the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ as the law of the land.  Of course, we all know what happened as a result of the Plessy doctrine.  There was always a strict enforcement of the ‘separate,’ without the slightest intention to abide by the ‘equal.’”

With Plessy v. Ferguson black newspaper editors like Alexandria’s Colored Republican Magnus L. Robinson denounced racial discrimination.  On May 14, 1896, Robinson convened “a conference of colored delegates from the South…to arrange a plan of action in order that [blacks] may get full justice.”

Until the mid-1930s enterprising Alexandria blacks traveled to the District of Columbia for high school: to attend either Armstrong or Dunbar High Schools.  Samuel W. Tucker—born in 1913—bootlegged his Armstrong High School education.  Yet there was a white segregated public high school within sight of his home.

“Justice requires us to remember that when any citizen denies his fellow, saying, ‘His color is not mine’ or ‘His beliefs are strange and different,’ in that moment he betrays America,” President Lyndon B. Johnson (D-TX) said in his 1965 Inaugural Address.  President Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 on July 2.

“President Johnson’s highest priority legislative request—the Civil Rights bill—is lodged these days in the tiny, mid-Victorian chambers of the House Rules Committee in the southeast corner of the Capitol,” The New York Times wrote on January 12, 1964.  “There amid antique mahogany and fading velvet, the 80-year old House Rules Committee Chairman, Representative Howard W. Smith of Alexandria, Virginia, rocks back and forth in his swivel chair…This seems ever so quaint but it isn’t…A dedicated conservative, a Southern Democrat, Smith has killed, watered down or postponed more progressive legislation than any other Congressman in modern times.”

“It comes back to the old question of the differences in philosophy between the liberals and the conservatives,” The New York Times continued.  All ten Virginia members of the U.S. House of Representatives voted against the 1964 Act.

In 1966 Gov. Mills Godwin threw “a blinding searchlight on one of Virginia’s sorest spots, education.”  We have “nowhere to go but up” the Alexandria Gazette concluded.

“[The fact] is inescapable,” the 1966 editorial explained.  “Our education trails the nation – 38th place among the 50 states in almost every aspect.  This must seem incomprehensible to the outsider since we are near the top of the heap in the matter of per capita income.”

“There were many experiences in Barbara Johns’ life that had led her to organize the [1951] protest, but the catalyst came one morning when she had a particularly difficult time getting to school,” The New York Times recounted in 2019.  “She had just finished helping her four younger siblings get dressed, shuffled them out the door and left for school herself when she realized that she had forgotten her lunch and ran back home to retrieve it.  By then she had missed her school bus and wound up stranded on the side of the road trying to hitchhike a ride to make it to class on time.”

“An hour passed, no luck,” The New York Times said.  “Then Barbara saw the ‘white bus’ go by; unlike her usual bus, a segregated one for black students that was always overcrowded, this one was half empty.  ‘Right then and there,’ she later wrote in an unpublished diary, ‘I decided that indeed something had to be done about this inequality.’’’

“And so it was argued that the Negro was inferior by nature because of Noah’s curse upon the children of Ham,” Dr. King recalled.  “The Apostle Paul’s dictum became a watchword: ‘Servants be obedient to them that are your masters.’”

“The plan I felt was divinely inspired because I hadn’t been able to think of anything until then,” Johns admitted.  Barbara’s “small, single-story school building, with more than 450 students, was so crowded that tarpaper shacks had been built outside to handle the overflow.”

“Cold winter days made it especially difficult for the students there to concentrate,” Farmville’s Moton Museum added.  “The school had shabby equipment, no science laboratories; no gym and no cafeteria…‘It wasn’t fair that we had such a poor facility, equipment, etc.,’ Johns wrote in her diary…‘From this we would formulate plans to go on strike…I would give a speech stating our dissatisfaction and we would march out of the school.’”

The Robert Russa Moton High School strike preceded the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott by four years.  The Greensboro, North Carolina, lunch counter sit-ins by nine years.  Student leader Barbara Johns “hopes were high.”

“People would hear us and see us and understand our difficulty and would sympathize with our plight and would grant us our new school building,” teen Johns thought.  “The students would learn more and it would be grand….”

The students boycotted Moton; then two weeks later the principal ordered their return.  The teens were threatened upon arrival.  Plan B followed: a hastily called meeting with the NAACP’s legal team.

“Initially, nobody dared to dream beyond a separate facility with proper equipment and good buildings,” Johns told the Richmond Times Dispatch in 1988.  “But once the lawyers explained that integration would be the best way for us to accomplish our goals, I said, ‘Certainly.  Let’s go for it all.’”

“We have seen an absolute crumbling of the system of legal segregation which pervaded so much of the South and the border states for so many, many years,” Dr. King concluded.  “But something else happened in 1954.  “After examining the legal body of segregation, the United States Supreme Court pronounced [segregation] constitutionally dead.  It said in substance that the old Plessy doctrine must go…that to segregate a child on the basis of his race is to deny that child equal protection of the law.  After [the Brown decision] we noticed the psychological turning point where people by the thousands began to act.  They started engaging in direct actions to fulfill the real ends…the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1956; the sit-in movement in 1960.”

“Truth,” Dr. King argued, “is the relatedness of facts…All over the country young Negro students are forced to attend inadequate, overcrowded schools, segregated schools.  That is not only still true of the South, but it is still true all over the country.”  Today’s re-segregated schools also.

Not until lawyer Samuel W. Tucker’s 1968 Green v. School Board of New Kent County, VA—a case argued one day before Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, assassination; the U.S. Supreme Court’s extension of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka—did Virginia School Districts implement full desegregation.

Barbara Rose Johns was born in New York City, the daughter of Violet and Robert Johns, and moved to Prince Edward County, Virginia, during World War II.  She led “a quiet life,” until the Moton strike.  Miss Johns attended Spellman College; graduated from Philadelphia’s Drexel University and became a librarian in the Philadelphia Public Schools.  Farmville dedicated its Library “to her in 2017.”  Johns sculpture was unveiled on the grounds of the Virginia State Capitol in 2008, as part of the Commonwealth’s Civil Rights Memorial.

So many American women have impacted the course of history.  But still they fight for equality; black women, white women, and women of color.  It seems civil rights and equal rights are not always one and the same.

In January 2020, Virginia became the 38th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.  “The required 38 states have ratified the Equal Rights Amendment [ERA],” U.S. Senator Ben Cardin [D-MD] wrote in January 2021.  “The states have done their job to make this happen.  Now Congress must finally do its job and remove any legal obstacles to certifying the ERA.” The ERA’s so-called deadline was June 30, 1982.

Senators Ben Cardin and Lisa Murkowski [R-AK]; Congresswoman Jackie Speier [D-CA] and Congressman Tom Reed [R-NY]—in bipartisan fashion—are making every effort “to remove the deadline for the ratification of the equal rights amendment.”  S.J. Res. 1, 2021:  “Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That notwithstanding any time limit contained in House Joint Resolution 208, 92nd Congress, as agreed to in the Senate on March 22, 1972, the article of amendment proposed to the States in that joint resolution shall be valid to all intents and purposes as part of the Constitution whenever ratified by the legislatures of three-fourths of the several States.”

“Since our country’s founding, women have been left out of the Constitution—intentionally,” Congresswoman Speier noted.  “We were second-class citizens deprived of basic rights to vote, enter most jobs, or own property.  To this day, we are paid less for our work, violated with impunity, and disproportionately suffer the burden of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Enough is enough.”

To paraphrase Barbara Rose Johns:  It is time that women are treated equally with men, time that they have decent pay, time for Congress to do something to ensure women’s equality.  There isn’t any fear.  This is your moment.  Seize it!”

Certification of the Equal Rights Amendment is on life support.  The 117th Congress has yet to schedule a vote regarding deadline removal.  All those in favor of the timely passage of the 2021 House and Senate ERA resolutions say “aye!”  Loudly!

Sarah Becker started writing for The Economist while a graduate student in England. Similar publications followed. She joined the Crier in 1996 while serving on the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association Board. Her interest in antiquities began as a World Bank hire, with Indonesia’s need to generate hard currency. Balinese history, i.e. tourism provided the means. The New York Times describes Becker’s book, Off Your Duffs & Up the Assets, as “a blueprint for thousands of nonprofit managers.” A former museum director, SLAM’s saving grace Sarah received Alexandria’s Salute to Women Award in 2007.  Email: abitofhistory53@gmail.com

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