Griffin was born on September 15, 1919, in Norfolk to the Reverend Charles H. D. Griffin and Drusilla Florentine Brothers Griffin. The family moved to Farmville, the county seat of Prince Edward County, in April 1927 when Reverend Griffin accepted the pastorate of First Baptist Church. Farmville was a small farming community with a Black majority population, but it was dominated politically, economically, and socially by the white minority. Segregation and racial disparities were pervasive. Griffin received his education at the racially segregated public schools but could not earn a high school diploma in Prince Edward County because it did not offer the twelfth grade.
Griffin found work on fishing boats in Florida, as a shipping clerk in New York, and as a handyman in Charlotte, North Carolina, before he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1941. Private Griffin trained with a tank battalion at Camp Claiborne in Louisiana, but after convalescing from yellow fever, he was deployed to North Africa and Italy as an MP in a port battalion. During his service in World War II, he decided to follow his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather into the ministry. Following his separation from the Army in May 1945, Griffin stayed with family in Rich Square, North Carolina, to complete his high school education and then enrolled in college.
Griffin entered the Bachelor of Divinity program at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. He met Adelaide Payne there, and they married in November 1946. The divinity student preached on weekends and during school breaks. The financial constraints of supporting his growing family—the couple would have six children—coupled with Charles Griffin’s declining health, compelled Griffin to return to Farmville to help his father’s ministry. Shortly thereafter, in October 1949, the elder Griffin died of heart disease, and First Baptist Church invited Francis to succeed him.
The Fighting Preacher
Griffin’s father had opposed segregation but did not use his pulpit to crusade against it, while Griffin, a believer in the social gospel, thought that “all forms of worship should be related to a form of action,” as he told Richard Kluger in his book Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America’s Struggle for Equality (1976). He converted First Baptist Church into a nerve center of the local Black freedom struggle, led the Farmville branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and chaired the Parent Teacher Association’s (PTA) Building Committee with the purpose of lobbying the school board to build a new high school. The all-Black Robert Russa Moton High School was overcrowded, and it could not match the facilities, equipment, and curriculum of the all-white Farmville High School. While the school board agreed about the conditions at Moton, it claimed there was no money for upgrades.
On April 23, 1951, Barbara Johns, a 16-year-old student at Moton, led a walkout to protest the disparities between the Black and white high schools. That afternoon, the students asked Griffin for his advice, and he recommended they seek legal counsel from the NAACP. Attorneys Oliver Hill and Spottswood Robinson told the student leaders that the NAACP no longer litigated school equalization cases, but it would sue to challenge the “separate but equal” doctrine established by Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). On May 3, Griffin hosted a mass meeting at First Baptist Church to rally support for the lawsuit. Although the room overwhelmingly favored the proposal, there were a few voices of caution. To blunt the dissent, Griffin closed the meeting with a fiery response: “Anybody who won’t fight against racial prejudice is not a man,” according to Simple Justice.
The NAACP filed Davis et al. v. County School Board of Prince Edward County in the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of Virginia that spring. In February 1952, the court heard arguments. Griffin was among the witnesses called to testify. He explained that the PTA’s lobbying efforts for a new school were met with no action from the county. A few weeks later, the court ruled in favor of the county, thus upholding Plessy. The NAACP appealed the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it was consolidated with four similar cases and argued as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. In May 1954, the High Court overturned Plessy by finding racially segregated public schools unconstitutional, and one year later it directed the affected school districts to begin desegregating their schools “with all deliberate speed.”
Griffin faced reprisals for leading the Black community’s assault on “separate but equal.” In a consumer economy reliant on credit, merchants required him to pay cash, cut off his home heating oil, and repossessed his car. He received threats, ranging from an attempted bombing of his home to crank calls warning of his imminent lynching; the police surveilled him and his associates, and pressured informants to provide intelligence; and he was ordered by a state court to turn over records of the Farmville branch of the NAACP to the General Assembly or face a fine and imprisonment. Griffin could have left the community to escape the harassment, but, as he explained to Robert Smith in They Closed Their Schools (1965), “It wasn’t my intention to lead folk into trouble and then leave them.”
The Lonely Hero of the School Fight
Brown v. Board of Education posed a major threat to Prince Edward County’s racial order. After exhausting all legal avenues and receiving a federal court order to begin desegregating its schools by September 1959, segregationists took extreme action. In June 1959, the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors voted to defund the public schools, thus locking out approximately 1,750 Black children. This had the corollary effect of depleting the Black community’s secondary leadership, as teachers left the community to find work, making Griffin, as Jet magazine called him, the “lonely hero” of the school fight.
Griffin spearheaded the formation of the Prince Edward County Christian Association (PECCA) in 1959 to meet the crisis. PECCA’s overarching objectives were to restore public education and increase Black voter participation, but to meet the immediate emergency, it worked to place upperclassmen in schools outside the community and more than fifty outside the state in the high school department of Kittrell College, an African Methodist Episcopal junior college in North Carolina. Still, more than 1,000 children remained in the county without access to a formal education. So, in February 1960, PECCA opened the first of ten activity centers in church buildings and private homes, where volunteer teachers kept the children’s minds active, as the NAACP challenged the school closings in the courts.
The Virginia General Assembly assisted the efforts of county leaders to put segregation academies on a permanent footing. In March 1960, the legislature authorized localities to pass ordinances that provided tuition grants for students to attend public or private schools, inside or outside of their community. As segregationists received cover from the state, Griffin beseeched the federal government for assistance, to no avail. The White House told Griffin in August 1959 that President Dwight D. Eisenhower was “powerless” to act, and the U.S. Department of Justice claimed that it had no statutory authority to intervene in the litigation. However, after President John F. Kennedy was elected in 1960, he condemned the school closings and supported U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy’s motion to intervene in the federal litigation, but federal district court Judge Oren R. Lewis rejected the application.
In August 1961, Judge Lewis issued an injunction that barred tuition grants for county residents but remanded the NAACP’s challenge to the legality of the school closings to the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. The NAACP reluctantly petitioned the court for a writ of mandamus to force the county to appropriate funds for public education in Griffin v. Board of Supervisors, but failed, and the educational erosion continued.
While the schools remained closed, Griffin agonized over the loss of every child’s education. PECCA continued to work with other organizations, like the American Friends Service Committee, to place children in schools outside the community, but hundreds remained home without access to a formal education. Griffin made national fundraising appeals to support the activity centers, but they struggled to maintain solvency. The stress took an emotional and physical toll on Griffin, culminating with a thirty-seven-day hospital stay for an ulcerated stomach. He believed that the county would only reopen the public schools if token integration left them “99 44/100% Negro,” making him “ashamed to live amongst such bigots,” as he wrote to civil rights activist Sarah Patton Boyle.
Griffin knew the schools would only be reopened by a federal court order. In July 1962, Judge Lewis shelved the state court’s ruling and found the school closings unconstitutional. He directed the school board to submit a plan to reopen the schools but refused to enter his order until the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed the case. The NAACP appealed to the Court of Appeals, listing Griffin and his children as plaintiffs. With the case now outside the purview of Judge Lewis, the U.S. Department of Justice successfully petitioned to intervene in the case as “a friend of the court.”
Non-Violently if Possible
In October 1962, Griffin was elected president of the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP. He resolved to make 1963, the centennial of emancipation, the year that “will challenge the ambitions, talents and energies of every freedom loving citizen in Virginia,” and seek “speedy and lasting solutions to the ‘unfinished tasks’ of our democracy.” His ascension to the presidency kept one of those unfinished tasks—the integration of Prince Edward County schools—at the top of the NAACP’s agenda.
Throughout the winter, Griffin worked with allies on a strategy to pressure the Kennedy administration to act on the Prince Edward County school crisis. These efforts culminated in April 1963 with the NAACP calling on the federal government to conduct an educational needs study and to provide a remedial education program. The administration soon announced plans for a study of the school closings and a remedial reading program and then hosted an interagency conference, which included Griffin, to discuss its plans to sponsor a temporary private school system for the locked-out children.
William J. vanden Heuvel, special assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, sought Griffin’s support for the temporary schools. Griffin conditioned his endorsement on assurances that segregationists would not control the schools, that the system would not be supported by tuition grants, that the program would lease formerly white public school buildings, and the that the Department of Justice would continue its legal support through the impending appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Vanden Heuvel then worked to win the support of state and local officials.
In the meantime, the street demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama, inspired a civil rights revolution. Griffin determined that the Virginia NAACP needed to reevaluate its program to catch up and to make progress “non-violently if possible, but violently if necessary.” In June 1963, Griffin and W. Lester Banks, executive secretary of the state NAACP, instructed local branches to initiate selective buying campaigns (a boycott of businesses that discriminated against Black consumers and job applicants) and to petition municipalities to end the discrimination or face “freedom demonstrations.” On July 25, Griffin launched a direct-action campaign in Farmville to protest the closed schools and Jim Crow laws.
The Farmville protests hastened the pace of negotiations for temporary schools. Vanden Heuvel soon won the support of state and local officials. On August 14, Governor Albertis Harrison, with Griffin at his side, announced the formation of the Prince Edward Free School Association. One month later, the Free Schools opened and arrested the educational erosion, as the litigation to reopen the closed public schools continued to make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward County
On May 25, 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling in Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward County. In a 7–2 decision, the justices found the school closings unconstitutional, but they did not provide specific guidelines on a public-school budget or determine the validity of tuition grants. The Board of Supervisors complied under the narrowest possible terms, allocating a paltry $189,000 for public schools and $375,000 for tuition grants to students at the segregation academy. New battle lines had been drawn.
Griffin told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that the school budget was “hopelessly inadequate.” The county’s Black school children needed more resources to make up for the lost years, and the public-private school allocation disparity gave little incentive for white children to attend the public schools. Despite “Operation Doorknob,” a door-to-door petition campaign to demand more funding from the Board of Supervisors, and a challenge to the budget by the NAACP in federal court, the budget stood.
The NAACP had more success challenging tuition grants. That winter, in Griffin v. Board of Supervisors, the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals barred tuition grants to students attending Prince Edward Academy “as long as those schools remain segregated.” The NAACP also launched a broader attack on Virginia’s tuition grants laws. In Griffin v. State Board of Education, a three-judge federal district court enjoined the state, and its localities, from disbursing public funds to any segregation academy that received a preponderance of its funding from tuition grants. In 1969, the court reviewed Griffin and struck down Virginia’s tuition grant laws altogether.
In the meantime, Griffin grew increasingly concerned over the public schools’ inability to address the unprecedented literacy problem produced by the school closings. One remedy came in the form of community action programs under President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” Griffin and Robert Taylor, a staunch segregationist, were named co-directors of the newly formed Prince Edward Community Action Group. In June 1965, the unlikely duo successfully lobbied the Office of Economic Opportunity, a federal agency that dispensed anti-poverty funds, for a $90,193 grant to fund “Operation Catch-Up,” an eight-week summer remedial reading program. Pleased by its results, Griffin partnered with Bryant Harper, the superintendent of schools, to persuade Washington to extend the program into the public schools at a price tag of $282,000. Much to Griffin’s disappointment, however, Harper chose not to renew the program after the first year.
Griffin also pushed the school board to give the Black community a voice in the public schools. In August 1968, he called for the removal of Harper and, in the absence of Black representation on the school board, an advisory council of concerned parents, but was rebuffed, which triggered picketing outside the courthouse. Local officials relented and formed the council with Griffin as its chairman. The council asked the school board to enforce the new compulsory attendance law, review its teacher recruitment policy, purchase more teaching tools, and expand the free lunch program, which put them at loggerheads. So, in April 1969, the school board reorganized the council against the wishes of Griffin, and then exacerbated the situation by firing a popular teacher. In protest, students at Moton High School walked out of school, and Griffin organized a selective buying campaign. The school board, again, relented and announced that Harper’s contract would not be renewed, and the School Trustee Electoral Board, a three-person body that appointed the school board, added Dr. Nathaniel Peyton Miller, a respected Black resident, to that body.
In the 1970s, Griffin’s philosophy shifted from integration to Black nationalism. He alleged that the new superintendent, Ronald Perry, was too focused on recruiting white teachers as part of a strategy to poach students from Prince Edward Academy rather than building a faculty that mirrored the racial makeup of the student body and focusing on educating the students already enrolled in the public schools. Griffin envisioned a school that psychologically lifted its Black students with a curriculum that valued Black history and culture. “Association with whites does have some beneficial effects,” Griffin acknowledged in an interview with Raymond Wolters in his book The Burden of Brown, but he said that “it has damaged blacks psychologically not to dominate their own institutions.”
A Man for All Seasons
In the late 1970s, Griffin reflected on the civil rights struggle in Prince Edward County in American Heritage magazine. Enrollment in the public schools remained disproportionately Black, and funding issues continued to challenge teachers and administrators. Prince Edward Academy remained closed to African Americans. Still, African Americans now held positions on the county Board of Supervisors and school board. Griffin noted that among elderly residents of the county, race relations remained strained and inequitable. But among the younger generation, he saw signs of progress. “In essence,” Griffin concluded, “there’s a new status quo here.”
Griffin died of congestive heart failure at his home on Ely Street on January 18, 1980, and was buried at the Independent Order of Odd Fellows Cemetery in Farmville. In 1982, the Town of Farmville re-named Ely Street after him. Six years later, a monument to Griffin was unveiled on Griffin Boulevard with an inscription that read:
A man for all seasons
A man for all reasons
A man for great gallantry
Being full of valor,
courage and liberality.
In July 2008, the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial unveiled on Capitol Square in Richmond featured a life-size sculpture of Griffin, and in September 2015, the Rev. L. Francis Griffin Sr. Gymnasium was dedicated at the Prince Edward County Middle School, tributes to a leader of the movement that had ripple effects across the commonwealth and the nation.