Finding Inspiration from the Birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement in Virginia

By Rodney Willett

On July 23, 1956, Virginia Governor Thomas Stanley convened a special session of the General Assembly to enact laws that the state could use to prevent school desegregation following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision striking down the “separate but equal’ doctrine. The laws that passed in that special session became a critical part of Virginia’s policy of massive resistance. It took almost another decade of legal challenges and conflict, including the closure of the schools in Prince Edward County for five years, before the courts overturned those racist policies that deprived so many African American children of an education. 

I grew up in Prince Edward County and visited there recently to tour the Robert R. Moton Museum, a national historic landmark that commemorates the civil rights struggles in that area.The museum was a middle school when I lived in Farmville, but the building had housed all of the county’s black high school students prior to the legal challenges of the 50’s and 60’s. And the civil rights movement in Virginia can trace its roots to that school, where its 16-year-old student Barbara Johns bravely led a student boycott of classes in 1951 to protest the drastically inferior education that black students were receiving compared to their white student counterparts in the county. Those protestors became most of the plaintiffs in the Brown v. Board of Education case. I did not start school in Prince Edward until after the public schools reopened and were integrated but I was there to see many of the local leaders of both the massive resistance and desegregation movements.          

On July 22, 2020, the Virginia House of Delegates held the first of three joint public hearings of the House Courts of Justice and Public Safety Committees on police and criminal justice reform. I am a member of the state legislature and serve as the delegate representing the 73rdDistrict (parts of western and central Henrico County). Those hearings will help me and my colleagues in preparing legislation for the upcoming special session in August that Governor Northam has called to address those racial justice issues and the budget shortfall.  

Yes, Virginia is in a different place than where we were 64 years ago when the General Assembly launched its plan for massive resistance … but we still are not where we need to be. I respect and appreciate the Governor’s motives in bringing us back into session: the systemic racism that Barbara Johns was fighting against decades ago persists today in the areas of criminal justice, education, healthcare, and employment and we must continue to work to address those issues. 

I went back to Farmville and to the Moton Museum to think about where I came from and to find inspiration to take on these issues in the special session and beyond. On my phone, I have a photo taken of myself in front of the Barbara Johns portrait that hangs at the museum. I plan to pull up that photo from time to time as a reminder of why I am here and what still needs to be done.