The Moton Legacy: Within And Beyond The Museum's Galleries

Published 3:26 pm Thursday, April 25, 2013

The intersection of Griffin Boulevard and South Main Street in Farmville form, one might say, a V or a triangle.

On the surface of things, that description does its job quite adequately.

But the Moton Museum calls that junction home and if you stand on the museum's front steps, or take a few steps and stand beside the American and Virginia flags, it becomes clear this piece of earth looks, in fact, to be precisely what it is-the arrowed tip of a magnetic compass needle.

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Pointing the way.

Providing direction.

The former R. R. Moton High School will make its long-anticipated public debut Monday as a full-scale museum with the unveiling of the six-galleried The Moton School Story: Children Of Courage. Each of the galleries is, dramatically and emphatically, a chapter in the Prince Edward County story. A story that is, itself, a crucial chapter in the history of this nation, detailing the birth of the civil rights movement and the triumphant emergence of integrated public school education in the county out from massive resistance to the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board decision.

But the historical impact of what began with the student strike at the former school on April 23, 1951 against separate and unequal school facilities for blacks -more than four years prior to Rosa Parks' refusal to move to the back of a bus-goes coast to coast, in fact.

The Prince Edward County component of the Brown case-Davis vs. Prince Edward-contributed powerfully to the arguments that earned the justices' favor and convinced them to rule against segregated public schools in the United States of America.

So the footsteps of those striking students in that compass point of land in Farmville were felt, and left indelible imprints, across the nation. The Brown decision was, indeed, a landmark in America's history, telling every locality in the country that they could not operate segregated public schools.

But as powerful as the Brown ruling was, Prince Edward County's board of supervisors was still able to respond by refusing to fund and operate public schools. That is why the 1964 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Griffin vs. Prince Edward County case was, it can be argued, as historically significant as the more widely known and celebrated Brown decision. The Griffin decision produced an unequivocal affirmation by the Supreme Court that every American child has the constitutional right to a public education. The Griffin decision reopened public schools in Prince Edward County and reaffirmed that constitutional right from sea to shining sea.

That transcontinental impact also followed from and with the footsteps of those striking students in 1951 from that triangular-shaped piece of land in a small town in Virginia.

The compass needle.

Pointing the way.

Providing direction.

For the entire nation.

The six galleries in the Moton Museum tell that story in a way that resonates long after one has walked or driven away from the museum.

Long after one has walked or driven away from the six galleries within the museum into the living, breathing, real world, day by day “galleries” beyond its walls, where our own footsteps can continue the journey, person to person.

We live and work in the seventh, eighth, and ninth galleries, in the tenth and the 11th. What history will we bequeath to the next generations, what ripple will we send sweeping out toward them, and will it be worthy of “the Moton children”?

As a society, as a nation, we are not fully and completely integrated yet, and perhaps we never shall be. We continue to segregate ourselves along any number of dividing lines that have, as their common denominator, those who look, act, or believe differently than we do.

We can encounter “segregated” moments around any corner in our daily lives. The heart and soul of what the Moton Museum represents, its core message and truth-in addition to its affirmation of the rule of law-encourages us to integrate those moments, to fill those chasms, large or small, with ourselves, just as Barbara Johns and her classmates did.

The Moton story is about living lives that are bridges allowing people to cross over to an understanding of the depth of our common, shared humanity. We begin to understand that it is our differences that make us the same.

Call it “the rule of heart.”

Let us aspire to such lives with unrelenting compassion and indefatigable tenacity of loving purpose.

The museum has wonderfully kept its promise in telling The Moton School Story: Children Of Courage and it is worth noting that the origin of the word “courage” is “heart.” Barbara Johns and her companions on the journey had an overflowing measure of both and the museum's galleries could easily read: The Moton School Story: Children Of Heart.

Now it is our turn to be the words of the next chapter, the images in the next gallery out in the world, to keep following where that compass needle at the intersection of Griffin Boulevard and South Main Street so compellingly points us.

Toward each other.