In 2000, when I first became interested in Barbara Johns and knew I wanted to write a book about her, it seemed like nobody had heard of her. I asked a friend who taught African American history in a local community college. She had never heard of her. I asked a classmate from law school who had a strong interest in the history of civil rights in America. He had never heard of her. I first pitched the idea for my book to Howard Reeves at Abrams in 2009 because he was particularly knowledgable about the American civil rights movement and African American history. When he first read my proposal, even he had never heard of her.
Barbara led her strike in 1951. Taylor Branch, Pulitzer prize-winning author of Parting the Waters: America in the King Years suggested that Barbara’s story was ignored because it was unheard of to credit a child with playing a major part in national politics and history.
I understood that Barbara was ignored because, in addition to being a child, she was black, poor, and female. Scholars have discussed the “invisibility” of black women. A Shining Thread of Hope, written by Darlene Clark Hine in 1999 mentions Barbara, and demonstrates that black women played a much more important role in American history, including the struggle for civil rights, than they have been given credit for.
Another reason Barbara’s story may have been overlooked may have had something to do with the painful backlash her community suffered when the white community responded with hate and anger to the Supreme Court’s decision outlawing segregation: Barbara’s home county, to avoid desegregation, shut down its schools. The whites formed a private school for whites only; black children were left without an education. Black families were broken up so that children could be sent out of the county for school. The denial of education to the many black children who remained in the county wreaked havoc on those children and their families for decades to come.
There were those who blamed the pain on Barbara. In an article published by the Farmville Herald in 1960, the author, Colonel John Charles Steck, accused Barbara and the others who demanded equality of “turning their native county into a battle ground.” In Steck’s view of the situation, the races had been “happily and peacefully coexisting” when Barbara stirred up all the trouble.
Now, at the start of 2014, just before my book is about to be published — 14 years after I first became interested in Barbara’s story — I am surprised by how many people I meet have heard of her. A friend who teaches at UC Davis told me that she uses A Shining Thread of Hope in her college course, and discusses Barbara’s contribution to the civil rights’s movement. The Moton Museum in Farmville, where visitors can learn all about Barbara and her strike, was established in 1994, but wasn’t opened to the public until 2001, and didn’t really get rolling until about 2008.
Also in 2008, a monument was erected on the Capitol Grounds in Richmond in honor of Barbara and her classmates.
Barbara’s sister, Joan Johns Cobbs, noticed an uptick in recent years in the interest in Barbara. She said, “The word is spreading.”
The word does in fact seem to be spreading. But why now and not earlier? Is it because the United States is ready to accept, as a national hero and leader, a teenage black girl?
No doubt Barbara’s gender and age were a large part of why her contribution to the civil rights movement was overlooked.
It now occurs to me there may be something else as well.
I recently came across this article which asserts — surprisingly — that as a society we dislike innovators.
According to this article, we purport to value creativity and innovation, but in fact, risk-takers and those who think outside the box are often shunned and silenced by most people who prefer the ease of the status quo.
According to the article: “We are raised to appreciate the accomplishments of inventors and thinkers—creative people whose ideas have transformed our world. We celebrate the famously imaginative, the greatest artists and innovators from Van Gogh to Steve Jobs. Viewing the world creatively is supposed to be an asset, even a virtue . . but it’s all a lie.” (emphasis added)
The article then goes on to cite impressive studies about how most people are actually biased against creative thinking and put pressure on risk-takers to conform. They are “satisfiers” who want to avoid stirring things up, even if means forsaking a good idea. Studies show that teachers prefer the children who follow directions rather than those who come up with creative ideas, and that true risk-takers face constant criticism and rejection.
While I was interviewing Barbara’s former classmates, I met a former Moton student who hadn’t wanted to participate in the strike because at the time he hadn’t believed a strike was the best way to go about getting a new school. This person also resisted my suggestion that Barbara’s idea was innovative and creative. “Hadn’t there been labor strikes before that?” this person asked me. He didn’t think her idea had been particularly creative — just not the best idea, and likely to cause problems.
It seems to me that there’s a difference between a labor strike and a peaceful demonstration intended to shut down a public institution in the name of racial equality. It also seems to me that putting together the idea of a labor strike with the idea of a peaceful boycott demanding racial equality was quite creative. When the civil rights movement got going a few years later, Barbara’s approach was the approach generally adopted by the leaders of the civil rights movement.
It also seems to me that the first person to do something takes the greatest risk. When Barbara led her strike, segregation was still the law of the land. The larger civil rights movement got started a few years later, after Brown v. Board of Education actually gave people the rights that Barbara demanded.
In 1951, the idea of integrating schools was shocking, entirely upsetting the status quo and social order. In 1951, the idea that blacks would peacefully protest inequality and in fact, achieve equality under the law was largely unimaginable.
2014 is a very different world from 1951. Much of what was shocking and new and innovative in 1951 is commonplace and accepted now.
Today, decades after Dr. King’s March on Washington and “I have a dream” speech, what Barbara did is seen as an accepted method for protesting unfairness. Her idea is no longer radical and shocking and innovative. It’s something we’re used to and comfortable with.
Perhaps today, for these reasons — and of course because at last enough people are able to accept that a young black woman can play a leading role in national politics — we can embrace Barbara as an innovator, a ground-breaker, and a great American hero.