The civil rights movement of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s was one phase in the longer black freedom struggle that began when the first Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619—and continues today. Because the most notorious events and horrific images were from the Deep South, Virginia's role in the movement tends to be overlooked. But in fact, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) filed more lawsuits in Virginia than in any other state. Additionally, Virginia's state-coordinated program of Massive Resistance, though ultimately futile, showed how the march toward integration could be slowed to a crawl by boosting local white authorities’ obstruction of the implementation of court decisions.
Civil rights attorney and activist Henry Marsh recalls that "the rest of the Southern states were sort of watching Virginia to see what would happen. We had to rise to the occasion. We had the strongest group of civil rights and NAACP fighters of any state in the union because that's where they chose to make a stand."
Consequently, many of the most important legal landmarks of the civil rights movement originated in Virginia. Irene Morgan brought the suit that desegregated interstate bus travel in 1946. Another Virginia case extended this prohibition against segregation to include bus station waiting rooms and restrooms used by interstate bus lines. One of the five school desegregation lawsuits encompassed in the Supreme Court’s momentous Brown v. Board of Education decision of May 17, 1954, stemmed from the student strike at Moton High School in Farmville led by teenager Barbara Johns. The case of Green v. School Board of New Kent County (1968) became the most important school desegregation decision since 1954. Southern juries were desegregated as a result of Johnson v. Virginia in 1963. The Loving case, decided in 1967 by the Supreme Court, overturned laws in seventeen states banning interracial marriage.
The civil rights movement did not achieve all of its goals. But Jim Crow—the social system of legally sanctioned segregation and second-class citizenship—was upended. A more just set of laws replaced it and led to a new era in race relations. The civil rights movement was as revolutionary in changing Virginia in the twentieth century as the War for Independence had been in the eighteenth century, and the Civil War in the nineteenth century.
Note: The Civil Rights Movement in Virginia was on display at the VMHC from February 7 – June 19, 2004.
The Civil Rights Movement in Virginia was organized by the Virginia Historical Society and cosponsored by the Department of Historic Resources with additional grant support from Philip Morris USA, the Jackson Foundation, the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy, and the Honorable and Mrs. Elliott S. Schewel.