- The Washington Times - Monday, January 19, 2009

NORFOLK | The black men and women who integrated Norfolk’s public schools 50 years ago led a march Monday to observe the civil rights milestone.

About half of the surviving “Norfolk 17” and their families took part in the march, in a city that once closed six public schools rather than let them learn alongside white students.

The “unity march” also included members of the Lost Class - the nearly 10,000 white students who were locked out of their schools in September 1958. A federal court order reopened the schools in February 1959.

“Today, we continue the journey that began 50 years ago when 17 African-American students - heads held high - entered six previously all-white public schools and walked into history,” Mayor Paul Fraim told hundreds who gathered to help the city honor the students and their families.

Some of the Norfolk 17, now in their 60s, joined the march in a trolley. They were joined by hundreds more who walked by the federal courthouse where the schools were ordered integrated, a monument to Martin Luther King and the Baptist church where the 17 were educated while blocked from entering the white schools.

Norfolk’s observance is the latest in Virginia and elsewhere in the country to acknowledge officially sanctioned racism. Two years ago, the state General Assembly voted to express “profound regret” for Virginia’s role in slavery. The gesture began a string of similar apologies.

The Norfolk march was intended to observe the end of “Massive Resistance,” Virginia’s answer to Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court decision that outlawed school segregation. Endorsed at the highest levels of state government and promoted by Virginia Sen. Harry F. Byrd, independent Democrat, the policy cut funds to a school that dared to integrate.

Schools were closed and private academies were created to educate white students who could afford the tuition. The policy primarily affected schools in Charlottesville, Norfolk and Prince Edward County, which continued its own homegrown version of school segregation until 1964.

In Norfolk, three all-white high schools and three junior high schools closed from September 1958 to February 1959 rather than accept black students.

The march Monday also included the families of Walter E. Hoffman, the federal judge who ruled Massive Resistance unconstitutional; and Lenoir Chambers, the editor at the Virginian-Pilot newspaper who won a Pulitzer Prize for his condemnation of Massive Resistance.

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