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“Like Reaching for the Moon”

Before Greta Thunberg, before Emma González, before Malala Yousafzai, there was Barbara Johns

Johns kickstarted America’s student-led movement for civil rights in education in 1951, when she launched a walkout of her fellow students at the all-Black Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville. She was sixteen at the time. She planned the walkout to secure a safer, newer, more equitable facility for her classmates. But after seeking the advice of lawyers from the NAACP, including Oliver Hill and W. Spottswood Robinson, Johns and 450 of her fellow students decided instead to commit to something much bigger: a lawsuit demanding desegregation. “It felt like reaching for the moon,” Johns said many years later.

That lawsuit, Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, became one of five legal cases that would be consolidated into the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education. And while it might have seemed like a moonshot to Johns, the reality is that her vision, strategic thinking, oratory skills, and grace under pressure all contributed to the suit’s success. It was Johns who led the assembly that convinced the majority of Moton School students to strike; Johns, along with her friend Carrie Stokes, who reached out to Hill and Robinson, two experienced civil rights attorneys. It was Johns who, at a May 3 gathering at Farmville’s Black First Baptist Church, demanded community support in a speech that moved the crowd to thunderous applause: “Don’t let Mr. Charlie, Mr. Tommy or Mr. Pervall stop you from backing us. We are depending on you.… Back the pupils up in getting a non-segregated school.”

After Davis was filed on May 23, 1951, Johns’s parents, fearing retaliatory action, sent her to Montgomery, Alabama, to complete her high school education. For plaintiffs of the Davis case and their families, life in Prince Edward County could be difficult—or downright dangerous. Some parents of Moton School students lost their jobs or their store credit. And not long after the Brown v. Board decision, the Johnses’ house burned to the ground. The family, who were in Washington, D.C. at the time, suspected arson, although it was never proved. 

In Montgomery Johns lived with her uncle Vernon Johns, who preceded Martin Luther King Jr. as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, and graduated from high school. In 1955 she married a minister’s son, William Rowland Powell. They moved to Philadelphia, where she raised five children and worked as a school librarian for two decades. According to her family, Barbara Johns Powell rarely spoke about her historic role in the civil rights movement.

Johns died in 1991, but she is still making history. In 2020, a state commission chose to honor Johns with a statue in the National Statuary Hall Collection at the U.S. Capitol. As one of two statues representing Virginia, the Johns statue will replace the removed statue of Confederate general and enslaver Robert E. Lee.

Read Encyclopedia Virginia‘s entry on Johns to learn even more about her. Written by journalist and civil rights scholar Margaret Edds, the entry is filled with quotations from Johns’s unpublished memoirs, interviews with family, and painstakingly researched details that reveal the ordinary and extraordinary moments in this remarkable woman’s life.

DISCUSSION

One thought on ““Like Reaching for the Moon”

  1. In May, 1951, I was in sixth grade of a small parochial school in Richmond, VA. The sixth grade of Bellevue Elementary school, two blocks away, invited ourclass to attend a play they had produced, explaining their dissatisfaction with racial segregation. We accepted, and marched behind Sister Perboyre to climb the tall steps of the huge school, went into their real auditorium, with seats boldted to the floor (Our auditorium was the church basement, where we unfolded chairs to sit down.) I looked in awe at their enormous stage, with real footlights, and the little comic books the children had been allowed to make during school time, explaining their concerns. At the end, having been designated spokesperson for our class, I went upon the stage, stood behind the REAL MICROPHONE and thanked them. Wlking back to St. Patrick’s, I wondered, “Why would they want to go to school with US?. That fall, in October, my beloved grandfather, William L. Doeppe, died. He had been a police officer in the Richmond community of Fulton, which ws virtually all African-American. He practiced “community policing” long before it had a name, resolved disputes, sent young people home after dark to “do your schoolwork!” and pulled over drunk drivers to take them to their homes. He was nicknamed the “Mayor of Fulton” and was beloved by everyone in Richmond, at every level of society. At his funeral, I sat in the chapel with people from all walks of life who knew and loved him. His “Fulton Friends,” who had, by their own request, donated nickels, dimes and quarters for the flower blanket on his casket, stood in the vestibule, peering through the door. Suddenly, a man in the congregation looked back, recognized someone and gestured to an African-American man in the vestibule, who slowly waked forward while everyon in the pew slipped over to make room. The response was another gesture, from another pew — then another, and another, until everyone had a place to sit down. At eleven years old, I was attending my first racially-integrated function, and I suddently realized what the concern was about — just that everybody should have a place to sit down. After that, segregation just seemed absurd. I thought the “sit-ins” and demonstrations should have been totally unnecessary.

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