- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 20, 2008

RICHMOND (AP) — What John Watson, Barbara Johns and other students wanted when they marched out of the Farmville, Va., all-black Moton High School in 1951 were roofs that didn’t leak and classrooms that didn’t freeze in winter.

Their protest was a seminal act in the civil rights struggle and the nation’s battle to desegregate public schools, and Mr. Watson and several other students watched yesterday as ground was broken on the Capitol lawn for a monument commemorating their place in history.

“When we walked out, we never thought it was going to come to this point,” said Joy Cabarrus Speakes, 68, who was a Moton freshman when Mrs. Johns led the walkout in April.

The bronze likeness of Mrs. Johns as a 16-year-old when she led the defiant and dangerous student strike is among several featured on the four-sided monument. Mrs. Johns died in 1991.

Others depicted on the memorial had vital roles leading to the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that outlawed segregated public schools. They include the Rev. L. Francis Griffin, a civil rights pioneer, and the lawyers who led the legal fight, Oliver W. Hill and Spottswood Robinson III.

Unlike the five other school desegregation cases that were the basis for the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, the Moton walkout was the only one initiated by students themselves.

The thought of it awed Gov. Tim Kaine, who spoke at the groundbreaking.

“Students stepping forward. Wow, students stepping forward to walk into the face of attack dogs and fire hoses,” Mr. Kaine, a Democrat, told about 200 people gathered for the event.

Conditions at Moton were far inferior to those of the all-white schools in Prince Edward County, Mr. Watson said. They starkly contradicted the prevailing legal doctrinee, which allowed for “separate but equal” schools for whites and blacks.

Classrooms were stifling in summer, and heated only by coal-burning potbellied stoves in winter. Water poured into classrooms when it rained, and lunch was eaten outdoors, not in a cafeteria, Mr. Watson said. “They treated their animals better than they treated us,” he said.

The monument, expected to be completed in July, will sit in the northeastern lawn of the Capitol, which was once the seat of Confederate government. About 200 feet to the west is a monument to Confederate Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, but due south is a renovated office building named for Mr. Hill in 2005, two years before his death last fall.

Elsewhere in the Richmond, a slavery reconciliation statue was recently unveiled downtown. Last year, Virginia became the first state to pass a resolution expressing profound regret over slavery. Richmond’s mayor, L. Douglas Wilder, a Democrat, is a grandson of slaves who in 1989 became the nation’s first elected black governor.

Mr. Watson said he never expected he would live to see what happened yesterday and found the symbolism inspiring — the emergence of an inclusive Virginia.

“For me, it’s a cleansing effect and it should be a cleansing effect for everybody,” said Mr. Watson, a junior at Moton when the student walkout began. “If Virginia can do what it’s doing, then look what’s happening in other parts of the country that we don’t even know about.”

“The country is not as racist as it used to be, and those of us who were involved in the civil rights movement know because we were there then and we are here now,” said Mr. Watson, now a radio talk-show host in Wilmington, Del.

The monument was the idea of former first lady Lisa Collis. She said she noticed after she moved into the Executive Mansion in 2002 with her husband, then-Gov. Mark R. Warner, a Democrat, that there was no diversity among the monuments on Capitol Square.

The Collis-Warner Foundation, a nonprofit charity the couple established, is a major donor to the $2.4 million project along with several major corporations.

AP writer Dionne Walker contributed to this report.

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