On April 23, 1951, in an effort to protest shoddy conditions at their aging school, African American students in Prince Edward County, Virginia made the decision to walk out of Robert R. Moton High School. The Rev. L. Francis Griffin led the fight for students as well as parents in the rural county, demanding better schools. Nationally known as “the fighting preacher,” Rev. Griffin was the voice of opposition to the county’s decision to close rather than integrate all schools. Refusing to accept the unfair educational inequalities, the former pastor of First Baptist Church said, Blacks would not tolerate “an oxcart education in the space age.”
However, in spite of his looming presence, Prince Edward administrators slammed shut the county’s school doors, refusing to finance the schools in 1959. For five years, all public schools remained closed to both Black and White students. Eventually, the small town struggle would eventually become one of the five cases which landed in the U. S. Supreme Court, in the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education case; unraveling the legal doctrine of “separate but equal.”
During the five year school closing nearly 2,000 students –both Black and White- received no formal schooling, eventually identifying themselves as “The Lost Generation.” In the absence of schools, Rev. Griffin developed training, learning and educational centers for Black children and aided in the educational progress of students in schools throughout country. Students were eventually relocated to schools and inside the homes of strangers throughout America. Unfortunately, the majority were uneducated and remained at home, in Prince Edward.
Throughout the five year court battle, Rev. Griffin diligently sought the assistance of President John F. Kennedy, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Attorney Thurgood Marshall and other civil rights leaders. In 1964, at the urging of the U.S. Justice Department and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, the Supreme Court ordered the county to unlock its school doors. In a speech given in Louisville, Kentucky, Kennedy later stated, “We may observe, with as much sadness as irony, that outside of Africa, south of the Sahara where education is still a difficult challenge, the only places on the earth not to provide free public education are communist China, North Vietnam, Sarawak, Singapore, British Honduras – and Prince Edward County, Virginia. Something must be done about Prince Edward County.”
Rev. Griffin’s consistent fight for the equal educational rights for all, will forever be remembered among the citizens of Prince Edward County. Described by Rev. King as “a giant among men” and “a modern social prophet,” the former World War II veteran stated, “I’m certain by remaining adamant through the long struggle, Prince Edward Blacks saved public education in this nation.”