Moton Strike on PBS Friday

September 13, 2000

George H. Gilliam, the message of the student strike at Robert Russa Moton High School on April 23, 1951 is “the most patriotic, most progressive story that I’ve head in a long time.” He’ll be narrating that story Friday night, and then in classrooms across Virginia via videotape.

He’ll be narrating that story Friday night, and then in classrooms across Virginia via videotape.

Following the television premiere of “Massive Resistance” on Friday night at 9 p.m. on WCVE in Richmond (Channel 23 and Farmville cable Channel 9) and WHTJ in Charlottesville (Channel 41 and Adelphia cable Channel 7), many viewers may find themselves discovering a significant piece of American history.

The third program in Gilliam’s The Ground beneath Our Feet: Virginia’s History Since the Civil War, “Massive Resistance” will dedicate nearly hald of its one hour to the Moton story and the events that followed.

The Moton message, Gilliam believes, is quite clear and compelling.

“It shows that the powerless acting peaceably, can get their hands on the levers of power and can cause social change … I think it’s a great story. People who want to change things can change things.”

The students, led by 16-year old Barbara Johns, were striking for better school facilities. Their action led to Prince Edward’s involvement as one of five locatlities in the Brown v. Board case and the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 decision strking down segragated public schools.

“I think the student action is remarkable and largely over-looked by historians … Here were these kids … who engaged in a very sophisticated form of non-violent protest and knew they had to move from there to the courtroom. They knew the political process was not going to give them what they wanted and they had to use the judicial branch,’ Gilliam said.

And this was before the stategies of the civil rights movement had been developed, four years before Rosa Parks.

“What’s really striking to me is you hear people talk about Rosa Parks but she had been selected. She had been trained. She had a lot of support in place for her. The whole ‘move to the back of the bus’ was staged. It was very well deon but she had done that after (Martin Luther) King stared talking about the importance of non-violence,” he said.

In the Moton story, Gilliam saw an historic hook upon which to hang the third pard of his documentary series.

Gilliam had been asked to produce The Ground Beneath Our Feet series by Dr. Charles Sydnor, a friend of many years who is president of WCVE. Focusing on post-Civil War history seemd appropriate because so little documentary attention has been paid to that long stretch of Virginia’s history.

“An awful lot has been done on Virgina during the Civil War,” Gilliam said during a phone interview from his Charlottesville office. “A lot has been done on the great figures of Virginia’s past: Jefferson, Washington, Lee, and so on. And a fair amount has been done on the Revolution as it affects Virginia. But almost nothing has been done after Appomattox.

Obviously, Virginia history didn’t stop at the courthouse there,” Gilliam said. In many respects, a whole new history started.”

The challenge is to make films that are both entertaining and educational, films that have the visial quality to justify their prime-time slot and also be useful tools in Virginia’s classrooms. The Virginia Department of Education has helped fund the first three episodes because the films will be used in state classrooms.

Gilliam said he was very pleased with the 20 hours of filming he and his crew did in Farmville this summer, most of it with residents recalling firsthand experiences.

“They were very personal recollections that give a very good picture,” Gilliam said.

Using people who made and lived the history is Gilliam’s preferred style. “My whole approach is to not use talking head historians in the Ken Burns mode. Burns’ stuff is beautiful and elegant but I thought this was a better approach .. to use lots and lots of voices of the participants,” he said.

“Massive Resistance” wil use narration for just 20 percent of its running time. The rest is devoted to people.

Gilliam descrives the film as “pretty honest stuff.”

Some of those who opposed desegregation, Gilliam said, “are absolutely unapologetic in their stands.” The program is balanced, he said, with both sides of the desegragation issue given a chance to state their views.

In addition to time spent on Moton, Gilliam said he focuses on “the reaction of Virginians to social change.” The program follows the Board v. Brown case through the courtroom. It shows, Gilliam said, the “early reaction of Virginia leaders, which was acommadationist. Then it shows how, once the dust settled a little bit, they decided to resist.”

Sen. Harry Byrd’s leading role in the massive resistance strategy will also be featured.

Gilliam’s conclusion in the film is that “even though the massive resistance era is over, race relations is still very much under negotiation in Virginia and the South, generally. But negotiations are taking place, not in courts or legislatures, but between people living in the community.”

And the role of those Prince Edward students at Robert Russa Moton High School in 1951 was pivotal, Gillam believes.

“a lot of things were going to happen regardless of what the kids in Farmville did, but the fact is they did it and they were a catalyst,” Gilliam said. “If it hadn’t been for them in April 1951, it might have been 1958 before somebody did something.”

And the action of those teenagers teaches an important lesson about the wisom shaping the nation’s government in three different compartments.

The political process in America may not always work perfectly, Gilliam said, but that is where the genius of the nation’s separation of powers, its three branches of government steps to the plate.

“When on branch breaks down,” he said, “you can appeal to another one.”

Out of all the possibilitues, the film will conclude with one voice, one face. Edwilda Isaac’s. The Farmville resident was one of the students who marched out of Moton on that April day 49 years ago. And it was her mother, Vera Allen, who was forced to find work in North Carolina when her Prince Edward teaching contract wasn’t renewed following the student strike.

“I was, obviously, totally captivated by Edwilda,” Gilliam said. “Her views, her reactions, are very complicated. I think if teachers use the film in the classroom as a launching pad they will be able to spend a lot of time on her reaction.”