We hadn’t intended to visit the Memorial after dark; I wasn’t even sure the capitol grounds were open that late, but other people meandered up the lamp lit sidewalks, so we crossed over the shadowy lawn.
In the short time we had, I wanted to show Kevin the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial that claims its unlikely real estate on Capitol Square outside the gates of the executive mansion of what was, once, the Capital of the Confederacy. The sculpture tells the story of 16-year old Barbara Johns, who led her fellow students in a walkout to protest separate—and very much unequal—conditions at Robert R. Moton High School in Farmville, Virginia in 1951. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 waited thirteen long years in the future.
What followed the walkout was a lawsuit that eventually joined with four other cases to become the landmark Brown v. Board of Education, in which the United States Supreme Court struck down the separate but equal racial doctrine.
“It seemed like reaching for the moon,” said Ms. Johns, and looking back, it was. Following this court decision, powerful US Senator Harry F. Byrd, from Virginia, rallied over 100 others around his “Southern Manifesto,” which opposed racial integration. Byrd and his followers had no need of white hoods; they were duly elected American lawmakers. They launched their “Massive Resistance” campaign, and in 1959, Prince Edward County closed all its public schools rather than integrate them.
I was in junior high school when Virginia schools were finally integrated in 1971, 20 years after the Moton High School walkout.
In 2008, Kevin and I attended a concert in Richmond and watched as then Governor Tim Kaine took the stage with Dave Matthews. A Virginia governor was introducing a white man from South Africa, both of them campaigning to elect the man who would become the first African-American president of the United States. It felt surreal in the best of ways. Here we stood, just blocks away from the avenue that is home to larger than life statues of men who fought an entire war to prevent just such a thing from happening.
Back at the Civil Rights Memorial, Kevin and I soaked in this dark yet hopeful chapter of race relations in Virginia while the students of Moton High School stood before us in bronze relief, Barbara Johns’ arm raised skyward. As we turned to make our way back to the car, a quarter moon cast its glow above the rooftops of the city. We took one last look over our shoulder to see Ms. Johns, forever reaching.