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.