Just off the main drag in Farmville, Virginia there’s an unassuming brick building next to a brightly painted tarpaper structure. The unobtrusive sign out front identifies the building at the Robert Russa Moton Museum; a largely unknown place that was the site of one of the most significant events in the civil rights movement. The museum was once R.R. Moton High School, the black public high school in Prince Edward County. In 1951, then 15-year-old Barbara Johns led her fellow students on a walkout in protest of the deplorable conditions of the building and the education they received.
After years of frustration with Prince Edward County school which she describes (later in a memoir) as having inadequacies such as poor facilities, shabby equipment and no science laboratories or separate gymnasium, Barbara took her concerns to a teacher who responded by asking, “Why don’t you do something about it?” Barbara describes feeling as though her teacher’s comments were dismissive, and as a result she was somewhat discouraged. However, after months of contemplation and imagination she began to formulate a plan. As Barbara describes it,
“the plan I felt was divinely inspired because I hadn’t been able to think of anything until then. The plan was to assemble together the student council members…. From this, we would formulate plans to go on strike. We would make signs and I would give a speech stating our dissatisfaction and we would march out [of] the school and people would hear us and see us and understand our difficulty and would sympathize with our plight and would grant us our new school building and our teachers would be proud and the students would learn more and it would be grand….”
Seizing the moment, on April 23, 1951, Barbara Johns, a 16 year-old high school girl in Prince Edward County, Virginia, led her classmates in a strike to protest the substandard conditions at Robert Russa Moton High School. Her idealism, planning, and persistence ultimately garnered the support of NAACP lawyers Spottswood Robinson and Oliver Hill to take up her cause and the cause of more equitable conditions for Moton High School.
After meeting with the students and the community, lawyers Spottswood Robinson and Oliver Hill filed suit at the federal courthouse in Richmond, Virginia. The case was called Davis v. Prince Edward. In 1954, the Farmville case became one of five cases that the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed in Brown v Board of Education of Topeka when it declared segregation unconstitutional.
While Brown v. Board of Education was decided in 1954, public schools weren’t integrated in Prince Edward County for another decade. The school system dragged out any attempt to abide by the decision for years, and when that became untenable the county decided to shut down the public schools entirely rather than integrate. The “Massive Resistance” movement eventually resulted in several communities shuttering their schools, though none for as long as Prince Edward County. It took another Supreme Court decision in 1964 to re-open the schools, this time to both black and white students.
When I first moved to the Farmville area a decade ago I met a man who’d spent several years being taught in a church basement and in the living rooms of family and friends by parents and other adults who refused to let kids go unschooled. In fact, he was the one who told me about this shameful history in the first place.
Both Farmville and the nation at large have come a long way since 1951. Sadly, Massive Resistance to a Supreme Court decision is making a comeback among Democrats, and New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham seems intent on becoming the standard bearer for the movement.
Grisham made it clear when she first announced she was unilaterally suspending the right to carry in Albuquerque and surrounding Bernalillo County that she didn’t care what the Constitution says, much less the Supreme Court. Even after the police chief and sheriff said they wouldn’t enforce her order because of constitutional concerns she insisted that curbing violent crime required disarming lawful gun owners and rendering them defenseless in public.
During the court hearing that led to her original order being put on ice, the governor’s attorney repeatedly argued that there was no difference between a “good guy with a gun” and a bad guy, that every concealed carry holder was a murderer waiting to happen, and bemoaned the Bruen decision for it supposedly taking away the governor’s ability to “try” to effectively fight violent crime.
If Grisham truly thinks that the only way to do that is to prohibit the right to carry, then there’s no way she would have let her initial order expire after its 30-day period was up. She would have extended it for as long as she got away with it, just like Prince Edward County did with the public schools in the 1960s.
Unlike the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the bigots engaged in Massive Resistance today aren’t doing so on the basis of race (though there’s a strong argument that racial minorities are still suffering a disproportionate amount of harm from gun control laws). Instead, it’s the mere exercise of a constitutional right that causes Grisham and others to view their friends, neighbors, and constituents as dangerous “others” who must be suppressed in the name of public safety. Black, white, gay, straight… it doesn’t matter. If you’re a gun owner, and certainly if you’re a gun owner who wants to carry your gun in public, you’re the problem. You must be “fixed”. You must be put in your proper place, and your right must be deemed a wrong.
I don’t know if Michelle Lujan Grisham is smart enough to have realized this, but the Massive Resistance movement failed. In Farmville the worst fears of the segregationists have been realized. Black and white kids are going to school, becoming friends, getting married, having kids, and living their lives in a community that is much changed for the better.
Like her fellow civil rights suppressors in the 1950s and 60s, Grisham is ultimately lashing out because she’s losing. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and there’s a portion of the gun control movement that believes it’s time to start lobbing Hail Marys through executive orders and tossing verbal hand grenades at the Supreme Court over Bruen, while the more institutional wing seems intent on taking a more traditional incrementalist approach.
If Grisham thought she was acting in a position of strength in proclaiming a constitutional right suspended because of a self-proclaimed public health emergency (at a time when homicides are actually trending down in Albuquerque, by the way), the backlash from many of her fellow Democrats and the refusal to enforce her order by local and state officials should have disabused her of her delusions. I think she was well aware of the weakness of her position before she made her announcement. She just decided if she was going to “do something”, she might as well do something big.
Grisham has backed down slightly from her original order, a decision I suspect that is almost entirely based on the unwillingness of police and prosecutors to go along. Massive Resistance implies mass, after all, and in Grisham’s case she (so far, anyway) hasn’t had the institutional backing she needs to pull off her unconstitutional scheme. That may have even factored into her decision to revise her original order instead of bringing lawmakers back to Santa Fe for a special session to address this “emergency”; she knows that she doesn’t have the political capital at the moment to control the outcome and ensure that her desired gun control bills get passed.
Lately, it seems like the governor’s been more interested in burning bridges with her fellow Democrats than building them, but that could easily change over the next few months. The self-proclaimed “emergency” in Albuquerque was her first attempt at massive resistance to the Bruen decision but I doubt it will be the last, and if she (or her handlers) have an ounce of political acumen they’ll be looking for buy-in and political cover from the Democratic majority before she unveils her next terrible and tyrannical idea.