WASHINGTON, D.C. — On April 23, 1951, more than 450 students collectively walked out the front doors of the all-black, R. R. Moton High School in Farmville, Va., marching to the home doorsteps of school-board members in the community.
Among the students who walked out that day was Selma Gaines, now Selma Spencer, the mother of Gen. Larry Spencer, the Air Force vice chief of staff and the service’s highest ranking African-American.
“I am reminded of Dr. King’s words, ‘Courage is an inner resolution to go forth despite obstacles. Cowardice is submissive surrender to circumstances,’” said Spencer, keynote speaker at Robert Russa Moton Museum in Farmville Jan.12. “What happened here at Moton High School is something that we all should be proud of, because it changed history. It changed where this country was going. It woke this country up. It led to de-segregating our schools.”
Fueled by conditions at the school, the walkout was organized by a classmate of Selma’s.
“The overcrowding was so bad that there was a broken-down school bus where they also taught students,” the general said.
At that point, the students weren’t asking for desegregation. Instead, they were simply demanding a better school. Moton High was only built to accommodate 150 students.
“The students, at the time, were more interested in the separate-but-equal issue. They wanted better accommodations,” Spencer said.
The term separate but equal was a legal ruling used at the time that justified segregation as long as each group was given its own, equal facility.
In addition to being overcrowded, the school was also missing key facilities that white schools had, such as a gym. Therefore, the students, led by 16-year-old Barbara Johns, decided to do something about it.
“Nearly all of the students walked out that day and marched to homes of school board members, starting a two-week strike where students refused to return to school,” said Spencer.
The walkout got the attention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who stepped in to help the students.
“An NAACP organizer convinced the parents of the striking students that the strike would only succeed if students attacked segregation head on,” Spencer said.
The students’ actions evolved into the only student-initiated lawsuit of its kind, adding momentum to an ongoing movement to end segregation in America. Their lawsuit, Dorothy Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward, was later incorporated into the Brown v. Board of Education case where the Supreme Court ruled segregation was unconstitutional.
Selma told the crowd at the museum that she is not bitter about events of that time, but instead is thankful for her experiences.
“I cannot say, at this point in time, that I am angry about anything that happened during that time,” she said. “I have been able to see so many wonderful things in my life. I thank God for the journey he has taken me on.”
The connection between what Spencer has accomplished in his career and what his mother and more than 400 other students did that day in 1951 is not lost on him.
“My mother, her classmates and countless others during the civil rights movement are a key reason why I wear this Air Force uniform today,” he said. “Many people sacrificed a lot back then to change a country that now allows me and others to graciously and happily sacrifice for it.”