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On Tuesday, vice-presidential candidates Tim Kaine and Mike Pence squared off in the small Virginia town of Farmville. While the debate between the party rivals was the centerpiece, the town itself was home to an incident some consider to be one of the earliest protests that helped focus the Civil Rights Movement.

On April 23, 1951, students at the all-Black Robert Russa Moton High School walked out in solidarity to protest poor conditions there. They were frustrated that students at all-white Farmville High had vastly superior resources. Led by student Barbara Johnson, the protest set off a contentious series of standoffs. Ultimately, the students’ efforts were not in vain.

As the battle for school integration became a hot item for civil rights activists, the Farmville protest was folded into a bundle of other cases that would form the basis for the 1954 landmark Brown v. Board Of Education of Topeka, Kansas case. The Virginia state government responded to the Brown decision by enacting a “Massive Resistance” policy to block the racial segregation of schools.

State officials believed so strongly that schools should be racially separate that they closed both high schools in Farmville. It wasn’t until another U.S. Supreme Court decision in a related case in the town’s county of Prince Edward in 1964 did Farmville schools re-open.

Virginia’s resistance to school integration reflected inbred racism and a resistance to federal laws demanding racial equality. For that reason, educational segregation persisted well into the ’70’s across the Deep South and although de jure integration is the law, de facto segregation persists to this day.

PHOTO: Virginia Historical Society

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