PECHS, Fuqua Students Learn Rule Of Law

Published 5:14 pm Tuesday, April 23, 2013

PRINCE EDWARD – Rule of law.

Those three words are as critical to America's civic life together as the three colors red, white and blue are to America's flag.

More important, actually, because without rule of law the American flag, whatever its colors, would mean nothing.

Email newsletter signup

Prince Edward County High School and Fuqua School students were immersed together, along with their teachers, in a symposium Monday morning at PECHS that saw Virginia Supreme Court Justice Cleo Powell join Hampden-Sydney College president Dr. Christopher Howard and Moton Museum director Lacy Ward, Jr., in a panel presentation.

Break-out sessions followed the panel discussion in the Rule of Law Day event co-sponsored by the Moton Museum, the Center For Teaching The Rule Of Law, and The Virginia Law Foundation/Virginia Bar Associaton Rule Of Law Project.

Justice Powell discussed what she called “the majesty of what the law can do in the right hands,” and how that thought inspired her to pursue a legal career, one that has seen her become the first African American woman on Virginia's highest court.

A “chance encounter” as a 13-year old with Sam Tucker, law partner with Oliver Hill, had provided her with that understanding of the law's power when used correctly.

The key to the rule of law, she stressed, calling it “this beautiful concept,” is that it “applies to me, a justice of the Supreme Court of Virginia, as it does to you, a junior or senior in your respective high schools and vice versa, it applies to you just as it applies to me…

“…The law applies to each of us. The law comes home to each of our firesides, as one famous quotation goes, and the beauty of living in America is that we know what the laws are. We know where the line is…” she said.

And that means if one believes the line should be crossed in civil disobedience to bring about change then one knows what the consequences are.

But don't just know the law, advised H-SC's Howard, also have a sense of responsibility.

“We know what's right and we know what's wrong, it's something in our stomach that starts turning when we come across injustice, like Barbara Johns saw,” Howard said, referring to the 16-year old R. R. Moton High School student who led the historic student strike on April 23, 1951 against separate and unequal school facilities for black students.

“You should have a sense of responsibility when you see the law is being abrogated” for yourself or someone else,” he said.

“Every time we have a right and a law or a rule, one incurs a responsibility,” Howard told the students.

Barbara Johns and her classmates embraced that responsibility in Prince Edward County and their actions played a vital role in the United States Supreme Court's landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954 against segregated public schools.

“You all are sitting here in one of the most important legal laboratories in American history,” said Ward, who noted there were no public schools in Prince Edward County, closed as massive resistance to Brown, when he was born.

“Prince Edward County endured the difficulty of learning great lessons about what the law would and would not allow, what the law would and would not abide. And we as a people in this county endured those lessons on behalf of the entire United States of America,” he said.

“In this county, we bore the burden for the entire nation of determining whether or not we would prepare all of our citizens to serve and to lead,” Ward continued, noting that then-United States Attorney General, Robert Kennedy, in 1964 thanked Prince Edward County students preparing to graduate from the Free Schools-established the year before the public school system formally reopened-“for bearing the burden in understanding what our educational system will be going forward. 'Thank you for bearing that burden for the entire United States of America.'”

Johns and her classmates had exercised the responsibility referred to by Howard, crossing a line into civil disobedience and having faith in “the majesty of what the law can do in the right hands,” as noted by Justice Powell.

Faith in the rule of law.

Asking any student who was 16 years old to stand up, Ward said, “Look at yourself. You are exactly the same age, and it's in exactly the same month, you are exactly the same age as Barbara Johns.”

At your age, Ward continued, “a young girl said segregation has to be dealt with.”

By the time she was 19, segregation had been dealt with.

Three years later, history was made that changed everything in public education.

“In America, it does not take a long time to change the world,” Ward told them. “From age 16 to age 19, that a teenager might speak it, might organize around it, might get attorneys engaged in it, might get the parents behind the students, in three years the U.S Supreme Court agreed with her that a law that had stood for over half a century should indeed be overturned,” he said.

The court agreed that “we're all going to be Americans,” the Moton Museum's executive director said.

“At 16 years old you can say that on a stage in Farmville, Virginia and three years later,” Ward stressed, “the highest court in the land agrees with you-that is the power of the rule of law.”

Will the rule of law work for the students listening to his words.

“Yes,” he said. “If. Yes, if you understand how the rule of law works. What did Barbara Johns know at 16? She knew how our system of government was constructed. She knew what the prevailing thought was at the time-separate but equal. Knew how it was derived through constitutional amendments-the 13th, 14th, and 15th-and how it was interpreted by the judiciary, by the Supreme Court, but she knew there was still a moral wedge in which she might cause that to change. You've got to get out of Prince Edward County High School understanding civics. You better understand how your government works because if you don't it will work on you, not for you. That's what you're really here to learn today-how can I take what's burning in my gut, place it into a system that is some two hundred-plus years old, one that's asking for your opinion, and then how do you make your opinion the law of the land. Students here have done it.

“Students here have done it,” he told the PECHS and Fuqua students. “That's why you can sit in the auditorium together today. We want you to leave Prince Edward County just as prepared to be an advocate for change, we want you to leave Fuqua just as prepared to be an advocate for change because America's facing trying times.”

Any policy in America that “is not right can be changed,” Ward said.

Looking into the audience, Ward said, “if you aren't taking the fullest advantage of the opportunities that people gave up a third of their educational life for, you're wasting the cause.”

Be engaged in the rule of law, he told them. “Be engaged in understanding what a great treasure you inherit by being a citizen of Prince Edward County and by being a citizen of the United States.”

That is precisely the point, agreed G. Michael Pace, Jr., president and CEO of the Center for Teaching the Rule of Law and creator of its signature program, the Virginia Law Foundation & The Virginia Bar Association Rule of Law Project.

Unfortunately, the rule of law in America's history, has been “absent almost as much as it has been present,” he said.

The presence or the absence of the rule of law depends entirely on the citizens of the United States of America, the rule of law living and breathing with our footsteps.

The rule of law doesn't exist on its own life-support system. Rather, its life depends on actively engaged citizens, Pace said.

Apathy will suffocate it.

“The rule of law…belongs to you. It is there for you. But have to preserve it,” the H-SC graduate said of the rule of law, “and you have to protect it…

“…Democracy, ladies and gentlemen, is a contact sport,” Pace said. “You must play it.”

Otherwise, Pace said, John Adams, who observed that there had not been a democracy yet that hasn't committed suicide, will be right.

“And that's,” he concluded, “unacceptable.”