We observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day by quoting someone about as far afield from King as one can get: The conservative columnist and one-time presidential candidate and White House adviser Patrick Buchanan.
Buchanan authored a recent column about Virginia headlined “The Culture War Comes To the Old Dominion.”
He gave a long list of ways that Virginia today is different from the Virginia of the past —which he finds to be a bad thing. That’s not really what we’re concerned about today. Instead, one line Buchanan wrote jumped out at us, and seems to cry out for discussion.
Buchanan was writing about how two of members of Virginia’s congressional delegation – Reps. Jennifer Wexton, D-Fairfax County, and Donald McEachin, D-Richmond — have called on the state to replace its statue of Robert E. Lee that stands in the U.S. Capitol. Each state is entitled to two statues; Virginia is represented by Lee and George Washington. More than a dozen states have already swapped out their statues — sometimes to get rid of honorees connected to the Confederacy or post-war white supremacy, sometimes just to put in place figures deemed more important than the ones being replaced. Kansas, for instance, took back a statue of a former governor and added one of Dwight Eisenhower. Hard to argue with that.
Wexton and McEachin suggested some possible substitutes. That’s where Buchanan’s commentary catches our eye: “Two names on their list are unfamiliar figures from the desegregation days of the 1950s. The third is better known: Nat Turner.” He then goes on to describe in gory detail the slave rebellion that Turner led in 1831. Buchanan points out that Turner’s violent uprising was counterproductive because, in the aftermath, the General Assembly narrowly voted down a bill to gradually eliminate slavery. Buchanan makes it clear that he finds Turner an unfit contender for a statue in the U.S. Capitol.
That’s not what gets our attention, though. It’s Buchanan’s previous line about how the two of the names suggested are “unfamiliar”— as if that somehow diminishes their worthiness. Statues ought to depict someone important, but must they always depict someone famous? That’s an interesting philosophical question, the answer to which seems pretty easy to us: That answer is “no.”
The two “unfamiliar names” Buchanan refers to are Oliver Hill and Barbara Johns. We broach this point gingerly: Buchanan is an 81-year-old white man who, by one critical account, “opposed virtually every civil rights law or court decision of recent decades.” We’re not surprised he’s never heard of Hill and Johns.
Buchanan is partly right: Johns has been an unfamiliar name, who has been honored more in death than during her life. Hill, though, shouldn’t be unfamiliar to someone who has devoted his career to writing about public affairs.
Hill — who grew up in Roanoke— was perhaps the most famous civil rights attorney in Virginia in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s. Along with partner Spotswood Robinson (who was quiet and therefore got less attention), Hill spent decades attacking the legal framework that held up segregation. In 1940, he won an important victory when a federal court in Norfolk ruled that Virginia had to pay African-American teachers the same as white teachers. Over the years, Hill and Robinson won multiple cases (and sometimes lost others) when they challenged the disparity between black schools and white schools. Virginia was on the hook for $50 million worth of improvements, but still segregation remained in place. The two lawyers kept looking for the “perfect” situation to make a test case.
Then one day in April 1951, a 16-year-old in Prince Edward County led a student walk-out from her segregated school to protest shoddy conditions there. This was an extraordinary event — the kids were simply fed up and took matters into their own hands, without realizing the import of what they’d done. Within weeks, Hill and Robinson were on the case, quite literally. The lawsuit they filed eventually got merged with four others moving through the federal courts to become known to history by the name of the Kansas case that got listed first on the paperwork: Brown v. Board of Education. Hill, quite simply, was one of the lawyers who brought down segregation. Perhaps now we should mention the name of that plucky teenager who set the Virginia case in motion: Barbara Johns.
Hill’s name may be unfamiliar nationally, but certainly isn’t in Virginia. Buchanan brags about moving to Virginia “four decades ago.” Where has he been? More than two decades ago, Richmond named it courthouse after Hill. Almost two decades ago, Virginia named a state office building after Hill. There are multiple ways that Hill and his work have been memorialized in the state — two busts in Richmond, a street renamed in Richmond, the courthouse renamed in Roanoke, historical markers in Farmville, Norfolk and Roanoke, a long list of awards that bear his name. In fact, Hill’s name has been invoked so many times that last year — when there was a proposal to name a plaza in Gainsboro after Hill — one African-American member of Roanoke City Council gently suggested that perhaps too many things were being named after him because there were lots of others people who deserved recognition, too. We’d suggest that Buchanan — and anyone else interested in history — read the critically-acclaimed book by Virginia journalist Margaret Edds: “We Face The Dawn: Oliver Hill, Spotswood Robinson and the Legal Team that Dismantled Jim Crow.” He won’t be an unfamiliar name then.
Johns remains less celebrated, but hardly uncelebrated. Virginia’s attorney general’s office is now in the Barbara Johns Building. Fourth-graders study her as part of their Virginia history lessons. Her portrait hangs in the governor’s mansion. She’s featured in the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial. Perhaps Buchanan should visit that. Perhaps every Virginian should.
Today we honor King, the preeminent leader of the civil rights movement. But that struggle involved more than one person. Today’s holiday is a good day to recognize all who took part in bending that arc of history, whether their names are familiar or unfamiliar — because some who are in the latter category should be in the former.