“The Rainbow … Before Me”

April 25, 2001

Courtesy of Farmville Herald – April 25, 2001

FARMVILLE – There were no clouds Monday. There has been no rain for days. Not a hint of thunder. No murmur of storm. Hardly a whisper of breeze. Yet, beneath a canopy under a summer-hot spring sun John Stokes saw a rainbow arcing across a 50-year sky. A rainbow of a thousand faces, human hues come together in celebration and reconciliation.

Something over the rainbow worth more than their weight in gold.

On April 23, 1951, Stokes had helped lead the historic student strike at R.R. Moton High School against separate and unequal conditions for African America students. He felt a mixture of sadness that day at feeling left with no other recourse, but excitement, too, and faith.

Fifty years later, standing again at the school, a ribbon cut moments earlier opening the building as a museum on civil rights in education, Stokes felt the anniversary was truly golden.

“I never through I’d see the rainbow that I see before me,” he said, breaking a half-century’s public silence on the student strike, “and the unification of people that I see here.”

The 50th anniversary celebration had begun on Sunday. in pulpits and in pews across the community, pastors and congregations joined in prayer and song, sermon and psalm, a movement of healing and reconciliation that flowed into Sunday’s community-wide service focused on the 11th chapter of Isaiah.

“The wolf shall live with the lamb,” Rev. Eric Griffin, son of the late Rev. L. Francis Griffin, who led the county’s African Americans during the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 60s.

Children like Stokes and his twin sister, Carrie. Children like schoolmate John Watson, who walked at the front of a re-enactment Monday of the student march down Main Street from Moton to the courthouse and stood on the bottom step under a gleaming and said, “I’ve been hearing, since I’ve been back, that the white community needs to apologize for what happened then .. It seems to me that it’s easy to tell someone “I’m sorry.” You know the old saying, that words are cheap. Saying I’m sorry doesn’t mean you really are. Actions speak louder than words.”
The white community, Watson said, referring to the number of whites involved in turning the Moton school into a museum, has spoken with its actions.

The ribbon-cutting grand-opening of the R.R. Moton Museum was held Monday in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the historic student strike. From left are museum board president Samuel V. Wilson, board member and Martha E. Forrester Council of Women member Vera Allen, museum board past-president Thomas Mayfield, and John Stokes, on of the leaders of the historic student action, who spoke during Monday’s ceremony.

I think-now I don’t live here anymore; I come back once in a while-I think by their actions the white community has already apologized. Over and over and over again,” he said. “How much do they have to do before you realize they have already apologized?”

During his remarks at the museum, Prince Edward board of supervisors chairman Hunter R. Watson had said, “You know and I know that mistakes have been made, but what is important, I believe, is to look to the future which, if we will work together, holds so much promise.

As museum president Lt. Gen (Ret.) Samuel V. Wilson held the framed plaque containing words adopted by the board of supervisors designating Monday as Civil Rights in Education Day, Watson read that Monday, sun-drenched and warm even in the shadows, was “a day to reflect upon and celebrate the courage and personal sacrifices made by citizens of Prince Edward County to bring about change in the struggle for civil rights in education.”

In comments made to The Herald amid the pre-ceremony hum of an estimated 1,000 people anticipating the event, Virginia Attorney General Mark Early described Monday’s celebration and commemoration as “really about remembering and about reconciliation. I don’t think it’s any mistake that when you drive into the county the sign says “The Heart Of Virginia.” I think the Heart of Virginia is clearly changing and I think Virginia once again has an opportunity to reclaim its destiny to lead this nation, particularly in terms of racial reconciliation.”

And, added Early, who is expected to claim the GOP nomination for governor, “I think the Moton Museum can be a point of rallying for that. Not just for Virginia, but for the nation.”

People will come to the museum, Wilson had told the crowd that was sitting in three sections of folding chairs and standing along the line of sun and shadow at the edge of the canopy, and learn “how people grappled with their past and successfully achieved a better future. These African American children set in motion one of the most powerful movements in American history since the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil War.”

Looking to his left, his face lit by the camera lights for CNN, a documentary film-maker and various television stations, Wilson paused and addressed the students, now grandparents, who made American history on a Monday fifty years earlier.

Wilson asked those men and women to stand. They stood, a thousand pairs of eyes watching. “You were courageous,” Wilson told them. “And you were right.”

And then it thundered, two thousand hands making sky sound.

Making American History

It was no surprise, Stokes recalled Monday, when Barbara Johns came to him and his sister, Carrie, about doing something to obtain better facilities, books and equipment. Students had talked about such things before.

Stokes, vice-president of the student body, and Carrie, president, talked with their schoolmate about “developing an action plan to present her case to the student body.”

It was a plan that would ultimately change American history, leading to the Brown v. Board Supreme Court decision over-turning school segregation, after students, and their parents, adjusted their sights from getting separate and equal facilities to the goal of ending segregation.

The plan for the strike was a closely-held secret, so secret that Stokes, and others, never spoke about its details, not for decades. Not, in Stokes’ case, until 50 years later, on Monday.

“This is the first time I’ve spoken about this in 50 years,” said Stokes, explaining that even at the time he equated the plan to the Manhattan Project. “It was done secretly, covert.”

A cadre of students was selected from different grades at the school and different clubs and organizations. Every magisterial district in the county was also represented by the students.

“We met secretly at different venues, planned, strategized, and organized into small task forces in communication, transportation, strike groups, recon, surveillance, smoke-screen/deceptions,” he said. “Ladies and gentlemen, this thing was planned out to a gnat’s eyebrow.”

Brothers and sisters didn’t even know what their brothers and sisters were up to. Barbara Johns’ sister, Joan-who asked for a moment of silence and a silent recital of the Lord’s prayer in her late sister’s honor-knew nothing until her sister took the stage at the school on the historic day.

Stokes said the last planning meeting was held the day before the strike in his family’s home near Worsham. On Sunday. His brother, Leslie, was home from college and almost, as Stokes described it, “Peeked our hold card.” But the secrecy held and on the next day the students walked out into history.

“We did it. We walked out,” Stokes said, “and blew every-body’s mind.”

Describing his feelings on that day fifty years ago, Stokes said he was, “sad. Sad that we had to come to such a bold act in order to obtain justice. Yet, yet, I felt challenged. I was excited. I had faith. Fifty years ago on this day we walked out in faith… and the rest is history.”

Fifty years later, Monday, April 23 feels different inside him.

“How do I feel? Blessed, number one. I’m also grateful to the entire student body for walking out with us,” said Stokes, who asked that the names of all the students enrolled at Moton on April 23, 1951, and all the parents who signed petitions, standing behind their children’s legal battle against segregation, be placed somewhere in the museum.

The entire student body didn’t walk down Main Street, however, just the core group of student leaders. A march by the student body, John Watson said Monday, would have been “disruptive. We were not raised by disruptive parents. We were not taught by disruptive teachers. We were taught to be respectful to authority. And we were.”

“But we respectfully said we are not going back to school, respectfully speaking, so we came down here. We didn’t want anyone else getting in trouble,” he said, explaining the decision by student leaders to walk for their meeting with school superintendent T.J. McIlwaine by themselves.

That meeting occurred in McIlwaine’s office. “He proceeded to read us the riot act,” Watson said, “so he thought. We were not impressed. We were not afraid. We were not intimidated.”

Ninety-four year old attorney, Oliver Hill, took the lead on the students’ legal action after an impassioned Barbara Johns, who called his office, made it clear the students were deeply committed.

Hill said Monday that he told Ms. Johns on the phone on the day of the strike that the students had made their point and should now return to school. But Ms. Johns would not take No for an answer, finally convincing Hill and other NAACP attorneys to come to Farmville and meet with them. The students would remain out of school for two weeks. The attorneys told the students and their families that they would take the case but only if it sought integration, not equal but separate facilities. The students and their families weighted the decision and agreed. The Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board decision came three years later.

About The Children

“It’s always been about the children,” noted author and radio host Juan Williams said during his remarks Monday. “It’s always been about what we tell the children about what happened here. It’s always been about the children, now grown, who are such heroes and have made this sacred ground.”

American heroes, as Wilson has said, who believed in the words of the Declaration of Independence.

“In so many ways, as we look to the future,” said Williams, author of the award-winning Eyes On The Prize, “as we look to the future of this community, of this state, of this nation, the story will be about how the children understand it. What the children say about what took place on this sacred ground.”

More and more historians and journalists are concluding that the birth of the civil rights movement in America was April 23, 1951 at R.R. Moton High School. Williams spoke with that voice.

“You come back to the starting point. You come back to Prince Edward County,” he said. “When you think about those young people, when you think about the tremendous, tremendous odds that they faced at that moment.

“It’s easy, in some ways, to make heroes of icons in American history,” Williams continued. “To talk about Dr. King, a nobel Prized winner. To talk about President Kennedy. To talk about President Johnson. To talk about people who rose to become national figures.”

“But,” Williams said, “to my mind, when you truly talk about people who made a difference, who create social change, who stand up against some of the cultural attitudes in their own community and sometimes against their own parents, you talk about the people who are making a real difference, you talk about the heroes of Prince Edward County.”

Looking Back And Ahead

Some people have a hard time looking back at the civil rights struggle, Williams said, because they are afraid that hard feelings and words will be re-born.

“The reason it’s hard for people to look back is because I think people think, “He said, “when they look back then they might get a glimpse of the anger of the past… They thing if they look back they might see some of the grudges, some of the bitterness.”

There is a few, he said, students of Prince Edward County High School and Fuqua School listening-superintendent Margaret Blackmon and Fuqua President Ruth Murphy, both Moton Museum board members, on stage together-as a child in a stroller reached up to its mother, who lifted the child up into her arms, a fear “of maybe catching a glimpse of parents, grandparents, friends being on the wrong side of history. And they think, “No I don’t want to see that.”

Faith in the future, Williams said, can overcome all of those fears.

“Today, as we celebrate the opening of this museum, it is incumbent upon us, required of us, our souls and our honest selves, to look back and speak to the children with a clear heart and a clear mind and say “We have come to terms with what has happened here and now we can move one. And now we can talk about building coalitions. We can talk about,” Willams said, “working together.”

Lions and Lambs

Rev. Griffin’s Isiah-based sermon Sunday night sought the answer to a question asked by the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Where do we go from here: chaos or community?

Community, answered Rev. Griffin, pastor of St. Stephen United Church of Christ in Greensboro, North Carolina. Community.

The museum that we will all come together to open tomorrow is for us more than just a symbol of an event that took place long ago,” Rev. Griffin said. “Rather, the Moton Museum is the symbol of how a community that was once torn apart by its racial differences has come together to preserve an important part of its history and thus move a step further in the direction of becoming reconciled, one to another.”

Lion’s eating straw like cattle. The young child dancing over the viper’s nest.

Color Blind

When his words were nearly over on Monday, John Stokes offered a communion of last vowels and consonants for those recreating the walk down Main Street to carry with them. An anthem for the march. A balm to bring home and spread among others.

Reaching back to his school days, and a favorite poem taught by a favorite teacher, the late LaVerne Pervall, Stokes said:

“Look not at the face
nor the color of a person’s skin
but look at that heart
which is deep within
For the face and the skin
will one day fade away
But the deeds of a good person
will never decay.”

That is what Main Street in Farmville, Virginia was alive with on Monday. A rainbow shimmering without colors. A colorblind pot of gold at its end.