Virginia’s Free Schools taught us lessons that remain

May 9

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend was lieutenant governor of Maryland from 1995 to 2003.

Fifty-five years ago, in a small county southwest of Richmond, a law was broken. The Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors stood its ground against Brown v. Board of Education — the landmark Supreme Court decision that, in part, required schools to desegregate.

For five long years, beginning in 1959, these opponents of progress shut the county’s school doors. They refused to let black and white students learn together, instead allowing the dark clouds of bigotry to hang a little longer over Prince Edward’s hills and valleys.

The publisher of the Farmville Herald, a leader of the “close the schools” movement, wrote, “We citizens of Prince Edward are not going to pay for integrated schools.”

Their action raised questions about the agonizing slowness of the federal courts to right wrongs and the near-impotence of the federal government to enforce Brown v. Board.

Many from around the nation regarded this as an outrage and a disgrace — both for Virginia and for the country. Among them were the man elected president the following November, John F. Kennedy, and my father, Robert Kennedy.

Within months of being appointed attorney general, my father issued an order that the Justice Department, for the first time, join a lawsuit seeking the opening of the schools.

The case endured delays, however. By 1963, my father and uncle decided that they could no longer wait on the courts, so they took further action.

The president attempted to redirect money from the National Institute of Mental Health to open Prince Edward’s schools, but Southern representatives in Congress crushed that idea. If the nearly 3,000 African American children in Prince Edward were to be given their right to an education and a chance at a future, it would have to come through an unprecedented effort of public and private forces.

My father recruited the consummate diplomat Bill vanden Heuvel to lead the mission to open a school for both black and white students. He brought together people who had never talked to one another, much less worked together as equals. But, as he told me, the idea generated enormous enthusiasm and donations started to pour in for the school. President Kennedy gave the first $10,000. The National Education Association raised thousands of dollars from its members, and charitable foundations came together to give hundreds of thousands more.

Countless unsung heroes stood up and sacrificed — they gave their energy, sometimes their jobs and even their safety. Even children contributed: Students from Cleveland sent in $30,000, and students from Long Island donated their spare uniforms.

To determine that this community would not be defined by evil, they blew on those clouds of hate over Prince Edward until they finally cleared the skies. With this clearing came what was known as the Free Schools, which opened in 1963.

Teachers for these schools came from all parts of Virginia and across the country. About a third were white. Some even volunteered their time.

Prince Edward became a bustling center of courage for civil-rights activists. It was where kids who had lost years of education returned to school with grit and determination. It was where the foundation was laid for how white people and black people would work together, how the federal government could intervene successfully and how individual sacrifices could break the tenets of hate.

The Free Schools lasted only a year — until the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the Prince Edward board’s action had been unconstitutional, forcing the reopening of the public schools 50 years ago this fall — but they were a resounding success. Their lessons stay with us today.

Years ago, my mother gave me the chair that my father used when he was attorney general. On the back of it is a list of his major challenges and accomplishments, engraved by his assistant attorneys general. There, in gold letters, is written, “Prince Edward County Schools.” Every day I sit in that chair, and I often reflect on all that happened — all that hatred and bitterness and anger. But I also think about those who fought hate with love, bitterness with kindness, anger with tranquillity. I think about the black students who went years with no education, at great loss to themselves, jarring the conscience of the country. I think about all those who risked so much on behalf of basic freedoms, and I feel so fortunate to be associated with them.

They didn’t seek recognition or riches. They just believed that a violation of anyone’s right is a violation of everyone’s right.

My father believed that as well. In one of his greatest speeches, Robert Kennedy talked about the tiny acts of kindness and advocacy and the difference they can make. He said, “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

I believe that he was, in part, talking about his experience at Prince Edward, where 50 years ago, people stood up for their ideals, improved the lot of others and, in turn, sent forth a ripple of hope.

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