Barbara Johns (inset) led these students of Robert Russa Moton
High School in Virginia in a walkout to protest their school’s poor conditions.

Hank Walker/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images (Robert Russa Moton High School); Courtesy Joan Johns Cobb (Barbara Johns)

The 16-Year-Old Who Fought Segregation

A courageous protest by Barbara Johns helped lead to a Supreme Court ruling 65 years ago that segregated public schools were unconstitutional

Barbara Johns had finally had enough. It was the spring of 1951, and her school, the all-black Robert Russa Moton High School in Prince Edward County, Virginia, was literally falling apart. The ceilings were so cracked that Barbara, a 16-year-old junior, and her classmates had to use umbrellas indoors when it rained. The toilets in the one-story building barely worked, and there was no gym, cafeteria, or lockers.

At the time, Virginia was one of 21 states where segregation in public schools was required or permitted by law. The schools for blacks and those for whites were supposed to be equal, but they never were. The all-white Farmville High School, just minutes from Moton, for example, had spacious classrooms, modern heating, and a real cafeteria.

Barbara Johns had finally had enough in the spring of 1951. Her school, the all-black Robert Russa Moton High School, in Prince Edward County, Virginia, was literally falling apart. The ceilings were so cracked that Barbara, a 16-year-old junior, and her classmates had to use umbrellas indoors when it rained. The toilets in the one-story building barely worked. And there was no gym, cafeteria, or lockers.

At the time, Virginia was one of 21 states where segregation in public schools was required or permitted by law. The schools for blacks and those for whites were supposed to be equal, but they never were. For example, the all-white Farmville High School was just minutes from Moton. But Farmville had spacious classrooms, modern heating, and a real cafeteria.

“I just thought, ‘This is your moment. Seize it.’ ”

Frustrated with the school district’s refusal to pay for upgrades, Barbara rallied hundreds of her classmates to walk out of their school in protest on April 23, 1951.

“There wasn’t any fear,” she would later recall. “I just thought, ‘This is your moment. Seize it.’ ”

The students, with lawyers from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (N.A.A.C.P.), soon filed suit against the district, demanding the integration of public schools in Prince Edward County. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it was bundled with similar lawsuits challenging segregated schools in other states. The combined cases became known as Brown v. Board of Education.

On May 17, 1954, the Court ruled 9-0 that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional—a landmark decision still hailed as a defining moment in civil rights history 65 years later.

Before Brown, “schoolchildren of different races didn’t go to school together in any significant number in any state, not just in the South,” says Rachel Devlin, the author of A Girl Stands at the Door: The Generation of Young Women Who Desegregated America’s Schools. “So it was hard to imagine. . . . There was this real sense of ‘Could it even be done?’”

Barbara was frustrated with the school district’s refusal to pay for upgrades. In response, she rallied hundreds of her classmates to walk out of their school in protest on April 23, 1951.

“There wasn’t any fear,” she would later recall. “I just thought, ‘This is your moment. Seize it.’ ”

The students soon turned to lawyers from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (N.A.A.C.P.). They worked together to file suit against the district. Their suit demanded the integration of public schools in Prince Edward County. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. There, it was bundled with similar lawsuits challenging segregated schools in other states. The combined cases became known as Brown v. Board of Education.

On May 17, 1954, the Court ruled 9-0 that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. It was a landmark decision. The ruling is still hailed as a defining moment in civil rights history 65 years later.

Before Brown, “schoolchildren of different races didn’t go to school together in any significant number in any state, not just in the South,” says Rachel Devlin, the author of A Girl Stands at the Door: The Generation of Young Women Who Desegregated America’s Schools. “So it was hard to imagine. . . . There was this real sense of ‘Could it even be done?’”

Bettmann/Getty Images

An all-black school in Georgia, 1941

Students on Strike

Brown was a reversal of the Supreme Court’s position on segregation. In 1896 in Plessy v. Ferguson, the Court had established the doctrine of “separate but equal” that served as the legal underpinning for segregation (see Timeline, below). In most of the South, state and local laws required separation of the races in transportation, restaurants, schools, and other public spaces. De facto segregation also existed in the North, even if most states there didn’t have laws mandating or permitting it.  

Barbara’s school, Moton, had been built in the 1930s to accommodate 180 students, but by 1950, 450 students were enrolled. Teachers often had to hold classes in wooden shacks covered with black tar paper or on school buses.

“We wanted so much here and had so little,” Barbara later said. “And we had talents and abilities here that weren’t really being realized.”

In the fall of 1950, Barbara convinced Carrie Stokes, the student body president, and her brother John, who was vice president, to go with her to school board meetings to pressure the district into financing renovations. Meeting after meeting, however, they kept hearing the same refrain from the board: “Soon.”

Barbara grew tired of waiting. What they needed to do, she decided, was go on strike, and stay out of school until the district acted.

Barbara organized a group of juniors and seniors to help her execute her plan. On April 23, they lured their principal, M. Boyd Jones, out of school by making up a story about some students who were getting in trouble with the police downtown. When Principal Jones rushed to check on the phony situation, the group passed around notes, calling for an assembly in the auditorium. They had signed the notes “B.J.”—Barbara’s and Principal Jones’s initials.

Brown was a reversal of the Supreme Court’s position on segregation. In 1896, in Plessy v. Ferguson, the Court had established the doctrine of “separate but equal.” That doctrine served as the legal underpinning for segregation. In most of the South, state and local laws required separation of the races in transportation, restaurants, schools, and other public spaces (see Timeline, below). In practice, segregation also existed in the North, even if most states there didn’t have laws mandating or permitting it.

Barbara’s school, Moton, had been built in the 1930s to accommodate 180 students. But by 1950, 450 students were enrolled. Teachers often had to hold classes in wooden shacks covered with black tar paper or on school buses.

“We wanted so much here and had so little,” Barbara later said. “And we had talents and abilities here that weren’t really being realized.”

In the fall of 1950, Barbara convinced Carrie Stokes, the student body president, and her brother John, who was vice president, to go with her to school board meetings to pressure the district into financing renovations. But meeting after meeting, they kept hearing the same refrain from the board: “Soon.” 

Barbara grew tired of waiting. What they needed to do, she decided, was go on strike, and stay out of school until the district acted.

Barbara organized a group of juniors and seniors to help her execute her plan. On April 23, they lured their principal, M. Boyd Jones, out of school by making up a story about some students who were getting in trouble with the police downtown. Principal Jones rushed to check on the phony situation. The group used that time to pass around notes, calling for an assembly in the auditorium. They had signed the notes “B.J.”—Barbara’s and Principal Jones’s initials. 

Hundreds of students crammed into the auditorium, expecting to see their principal onstage. But when the purple curtain went up, they were shocked: Barbara was at the podium. She delivered a rousing speech that brought the students in the auditorium to their feet—and out of school on strike.

The students also sent a letter to the N.A.A.C.P., asking for help getting a new school. The timing was perfect. N.A.A.C.P. lawyers, including Thurgood Marshall—who would become the first black Supreme Court justice—had been fighting segregation in education since the 1930s. They’d already won Supreme Court cases that desegregated an all-white university and an all-white law school and were now looking for students who could help them challenge segregation in primary education. The N.A.A.C.P. agreed to take up the Moton case only if the students were willing to make it about integrating schools, rather than a new school for themselves.

At a packed meeting between N.A.A.C.P. lawyers and much of Prince Edward County’s black community, many adults, including a former Moton principal, argued that pursuing integration would be too dangerous. But Barbara gave a speech that brought audience members to tears, convincing them of the need for integrated schools and showing the N.A.A.C.P. lawyers that these students had what it took to bring their case to court.

Hundreds of students crammed into the auditorium, expecting to see their principal onstage. But when the purple curtain went up, they were shocked: Barbara was at the podium. She delivered a rousing speech. It brought the students in the auditorium to their feet and out of school on strike.

The students also sent a letter to the N.A.A.C.P., asking for help getting a new school. The timing was perfect. N.A.A.C.P. lawyers had been fighting segregation in education since the 1930s. One of those lawyers, Thurgood Marshall, would become the first black Supreme Court justice. They’d already won Supreme Court cases that desegregated an all-white university and an all-white law school. They were now looking for students who could help them challenge segregation in primary education. The N.A.A.C.P. agreed to take up the Moton case only if the students were willing to make it about integrating schools, rather than a new school
for themselves.

At a packed meeting between N.A.A.C.P. lawyers and much of Prince Edward County’s black community, many adults, including a former Moton principal, argued that pursuing integration would be too dangerous. But Barbara gave a speech that brought audience members to tears. She convinced them of the need for integrated schools. And her persuasiveness showed the N.A.A.C.P. lawyers that these students had what it took to bring their case to court. 

AP Images

Opposing integration in Clinton, Tennessee, two years after Brown v. Board of Education

A Case for Equality

While their lawsuit wound its way through the judicial system, the students returned to school. But Barbara paid a price for organizing the strike: She received death threats, and the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in her yard. For her safety, her parents sent her to live with relatives in Alabama.

Across the nation, nearly a dozen other desegregation lawsuits had been filed in the immediate aftermath of World War II—almost all by young women and girls and their parents. In 1951, in Topeka, Kansas, third-grader Linda Brown’s father, Oliver, and
12 other parents sued the school board for discrimination. The Supreme Court combined that case with three similar lawsuits, including Barbara’s, into Brown (see “Demanding Their Rights,” below).

In Brown, the Court declared that segregated public schools violated black people’s 14th Amendment right to “equal protection of the laws.” Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that “in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

Essentially, the Court said, separate could never be equal. Even if schools for blacks were equal in quality to schools for whites, Warren wrote, separating black children from others because of their race “generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely to be undone.”

While their lawsuit worked its way through the judicial system, the students returned to school. But Barbara paid a price for organizing the strike. She received death threats, and the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in her yard. For her safety, her parents sent her to live with relatives in Alabama.

Across the nation, nearly a dozen other desegregation lawsuits had been filed in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Almost all of them were filed by young women and girls and their parents. In 1951, in Topeka, Kansas, third-grader Linda Brown’s father, Oliver, and 12 other parents sued the school board for discrimination. The Supreme Court combined that case with three similar lawsuits, including Barbara’s, into Brown v. Board of Education (see “Demanding Their Rights,” below).

In Brown, the Court declared that segregated public schools violated black people’s 14th Amendment right to “equal protection of the laws.” Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that “in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

Essentially, the Court said, separate could never be equal. Even if schools for blacks were equal in quality to schools for whites, Warren wrote, separating black children from others because of their race “generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely to be undone.”

Many U.S. schools today are segregated in practice.

The Court was vague, however, regarding how schools should go about desegregating, stating only that it should be done “with all deliberate speed.” Many school districts took that as an excuse to move slowly—if at all.

Alabama State Representative Sam Engelhardt vowed that his state would “keep every brick in our segregation wall intact.” And Virginia adopted a policy of “massive resistance,” cutting off funding to public schools that attempted to desegregate. Prince Edward County, where Moton was located, even closed down public schools for five years rather than integrate them. Private schools were created for the white children, while the black students had to attend makeshift schools in church basements or move to another county. 

Over the next few decades, though, school districts were forced to accept Brown. By 1988, integration reached an all-time high: Nearly 45 percent of black students in the South attended majority-white schools, up from 0 percent in 1954.

But today, 65 years after the Court’s ruling, many schools in the U.S. are segregated in practice rather than by law. Only 23 percent of black students in the South attended majority-white schools in 2011, according to a study by the University of California Civil Rights Project.

Schools aren’t segregated just in the South. The same study calculated the percentage of black students in each state who attend schools that are more than 90 percent minority, and found that 6 of the 10 most segregated states by that measure are in the North. Sheryll Cashin, a law professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., says segregated schools today are largely the result of segregated neighborhoods.

“Tremendous gains have been made overall in decreasing inequality since Brown was decided,” Cashin says. “Yet Brown’s vision of equal educational opportunities for all Americans remains unfulfilled.”

But the Court was vague about how schools should go about desegregating. It stated only that it should be done “with all deliberate speed.” Many school districts took that as an excuse to move slowly—if at all.

Alabama State Representative Sam Engelhardt vowed that his state would “keep every brick in our segregation wall intact.” And Virginia adopted a policy of “massive resistance.” The state’s officials cut off funding to public schools that attempted to desegregate. Prince Edward County, where Moton was located, even closed down public schools for five years rather than integrate them. Private schools were created for the white children. The black students had to attend makeshift schools in church basements or move to another county. 

Over the next few decades, though, school districts were forced to accept Brown. By 1988, integration reached an all-time high. Nearly 45 percent of black students in the South attended majority-white schools that year. That was a huge jump up from 0 percent in 1954.

But today, 65 years after the Court’s ruling, many schools in the U.S. are segregated in practice rather than by law. Only 23 percent of black students in the South attended majority-white schools in 2011, according to a study by the University of California Civil Rights Project.

Schools aren’t segregated just in the South. The same study calculated the percentage of black students in each state who attend schools that are more than 90 percent minority. It found that 6 of the 10 most segregated states by that measure are in the North. Sheryll Cashin, a law professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., says segregated schools today are largely the result of segregated neighborhoods.

“Tremendous gains have been made overall in decreasing inequality since Brown was decided,” Cashin says. “Yet Brown’s vision of equal educational opportunities for all Americans remains unfulfilled.”

Girls At The Forefront

Still, the Brown decision helped energize the civil rights movement, inspiring other peaceful marches, sit-ins, and boycotts that led to more progress for black people, including the banning of segregation in all public spaces with the Civil Rights Act 10 years later.

Barbara died in 1991, at age 56. Over time, many historians have overlooked her story. Devlin, the author of A Girl Stands at the Door, says that a lot of young female students who were at the forefront of the movement to integrate schools and other civil rights protests haven’t gotten enough credit. But, she adds, Barbara’s courageous actions serve as a reminder that youth have the power to make a difference.

“Young people can be activists,” Devlin says, “and they can change the course of historical events.”

Still, the Brown decision helped energize the civil rights movement. It inspired other peaceful marches, sit-ins, and boycotts that led to more progress for black people. Among them was the banning of segregation in all public spaces with the Civil Rights Act 10 years later.

Barbara died in 1991, at age 56. Over time, many historians have overlooked her story. Devlin, the author of A Girl Stands at the Door, says that a lot of young female students who were at the forefront of the movement to integrate schools and other civil rights protests haven’t gotten enough credit. But, she adds, Barbara’s courageous actions serve as a reminder that youth have the power to make a difference.

“Young people can be activists,” Devlin says, “and they can change the course of historical events.”

With reporting by Rebecca Zissou.

With reporting by Rebecca Zissou.

Timeline: Schools & Race

1896: Plessy v. Ferguson

The Supreme Court establishes the principle of “separate but equal” public facilities for blacks and whites, providing the legal basis for segregation in public schools.

The Supreme Court establishes the principle of “separate but equal” public facilities for blacks and whites, providing the legal basis for segregation in public schools.

Bettmann/Getty Images

First day of school at Fort Myer Elementary in Virginia, 1954

1954: Brown v. Board of Education

Bettmann/Getty Images

Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine, faces a mob on her way to school

1957: Little Rock Nine

In a test of Brown, nine black students trying to desegregate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, are turned away by a mob and the Arkansas National Guard. Federal troops eventually escort the students inside.

In a test of Brown, nine black students trying to desegregate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, are turned away by a mob and the Arkansas National Guard. Federal troops eventually escort the students inside.

1958: “Massive Resistance”

School districts throughout the South defy Brown or impede compliance with it; Virginia’s policy of “massive resistance” denies funds to integrated public schools and closes some schools to keep black students out.