In 1954 when the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas decision declared that racially separate schools were inherently unequal and therefore a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause, Virginia's white political leaders at the state and local levels chose to avoid desegregation at all costs. The Commonwealth of Virginia led a “massive resistance” movement, threatening to close public schools rather than desegregate. In 1959, the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors closed its public schools and later provided tax money to support private, white-only schools.
President John F. Kennedy spoke about Prince Edward County in a civil rights address to Congress in February 1963. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy urged action in Prince Edward County in a speech in Kentucky on March 19, 1963. Kennedy's administration joined state and private organizers in the Prince Edward County Free School Association, which rented three of the closed public schools for African American students to attend during the 1963–1964 school year. On May 11, 1964, Robert F. Kennedy visited Prince Edward County to observe the Free Schools. Shortly after, the Supreme Court ordered the reopening of Prince Edward County schools in Griffin v. Board of Education of Prince Edward County. In September 1964, about 1,500 mostly African American students, returned to public school in Prince Edward County.
The roots of the conflict in Prince Edward County dated back to 1951 and a student-led strike, organized by Barbara Johns, at Robert Russa Moton High School. Constructed in 1939, the school was designed to house 180 students and was, like many other black high schools in the South, a simple, one-story brick building. The school's enrollment quickly outgrew the original building, reaching more than 400 students by 1950. The white school board's response to repeated petitions for a new school was the construction of three temporary additions covered with tarpaper. Unsatisfied with the buildings, Barbara Johns and other students began a strike on April 23, 1951, keeping nearly 400 students out of school for two weeks. NAACP leaders and Richmond natives, Oliver Hill and Spottswood W. Robinson, encouraged the students to sue for an end to segregation instead of fighting for equal facilities. On May 23, 1951, Robinson filed a suit on the behalf of the students, which was later incorporated into the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas United States Supreme Court case.
From 1956 to 1959, Virginia's United States senator, Harry Flood Byrd called on the South to organize a program of Massive Resistance to school desegregation, refusing to provide funds for schools that desegregated. In Virginia, Massive Resistance became reality in 1958 when Governor James Lindsay Almond ordered the closing of public schools in Warren County, Charlottesville, and Norfolk. In January 1959 a federal district court declared Virginia's Massive Resistance laws unconstitutional based on the “equal protection” clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals declared that they violated the state constitution.
When Prince Edward County schools closed in 1959, African American students had to attend schools in surrounding counties, leave the state to attend integrated schools elsewhere, or miss out on education altogether. Many white students attended the local private schools that opened in order to avoid desegregation. Five years later, Prince Edward County reopened their schools following a court order. Sadly, many African American residents lost five years of education.
After becoming U.S. attorney general, Robert F. Kennedy expressed general support for civil rights in public speeches and political policy. He worked toward the approval of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which strengthened voting rights and banned racial segregation in schools, public facilities, and the workplace. The enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 increased the federal government's effort to integrate schools. By the use of threats to cut off federal funding of state school districts that did not comply with the law more extensive, progress was made toward desegregating schools.
1. Who was Robert F. Kennedy?
2. Why did Kennedy visit Prince Edward County?
3. What happened in Prince Edward County as a result of the effort to integrate public schools?
1. Over the course of the United States' history, Virginia has been in the national spotlight often, sometimes for not very redeeming reasons. Why do you think Virginia has had such a long and varied history of being a leader in political and social situations?
Smith, R. C. They Closed Their Schools: Prince Edward County, Virginia, 1951–1964. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1965.
Lassiter, Matthew D., and Andrew B. Lewis eds. The Moderates' Dilemma: Massive Resistance to School Desegregation in Virginia. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998.