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Tuesday, September 17, 2013
Fifty years ago on Sept. 15, four African-American girls, dressed in white, gathered in the basement of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley — all 14 — and Denise McNair, 11, chatted about the first week of school as they prepared to participate in the morning’s service. Suddenly, an explosion blew a gaping hole in the sanctuary wall. The girls were crushed to death beneath the rubble; more than 20 other people were injured in the blast.
The deaths of the girls shocked the nation. Weeks earlier, during the March on Washington, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had called upon Americans to “lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.”
Yet it was local events, not the March on Washington, that drove the Ku Klux Klan to target the church, a center of civil rights activity. Birmingham schools had desegregated a mere six days before the bombing, prompting a showdown between Alabama Gov. George Wallace and the federal government. On Aug. 19, a federal judge had ordered five students admitted to white schools. The next day, segregationists bombed the home of a leading black attorney and rioting ensued. On Sept. 4, two students registered at the white school near their home. That night, though, another bombing gave Wallace the excuse to stop the desegregation. He called in the state police and closed the schools.
In Prince Edward County, Va., people grieved for the little girls, but the bombing only increased anxiety about what segregationists might do closer to home as the county’s own school desegregation drama reached a turning point. In 1954, Prince Edward County had been one of the five communities involved in the Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education that declared segregated education unconstitutional. Under federal court order to desegregate in 1959, the county government refused to appropriate funds to the schools, effectively closing them. African Americans sued to reopen the schools, but litigation had stalled in the state and federal courts. By September 1963, Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward County was headed to the Supreme Court.
For four years, Prince Edward families had struggled to find alternatives to public education. Community leaders organized a private academy for whites who could afford tuition. Some black parents sent their children out of the county to attend school, but others could not afford the financial or emotional costs of doing so. Civil rights activists demanded the Kennedy administration intervene, and federal officials responded by initiating the Prince Edward Free Schools. The Free Schools were privately funded schools that were free and open to all the county’s children. Overseen by an interracial board of directors comprised of Virginia’s educational leaders, the Free Schools served as a stopgap measure until the Supreme Court could hear the Prince Edward case.
On Monday, Sept. 16 — just one day after the Birmingham violence — the Free Schools opened on an integrated basis without incident.
In May 1964, the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional to deny Prince Edward children “their right to an education equal to that afforded by the public schools in the other parts of Virginia” and ordered the reopening of the schools. By the time of the decision, no other locality in America had closed its schools for as long as Prince Edward.
Virginians may have avoided the violence that plagued Birmingham during the civil rights era, but denying children access to education was an act of profound psychological violence that left deep emotional scars. As we remember the loss of the four little girls in Birmingham, let us also remember the stories of struggle and sacrifice in Prince Edward County, where parents refused to abandon the principle of free public education for all. Another school year has commenced. Now would be a good time to recommit ourselves to ensuring all children have access to a high quality public education.
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