Historical Context



Pilgrimage for "Martinsville Seven" Richmond VA (1951)
Student Strike at Moton High VA (1951)
Students and Paraents Challenge School Segregation (1951-1952)
NAACP Builds the Case (1951-1954)
"We Charge Genocide" Petition to the United Nations (1951)
Murder of Harry & Harriette Moore (Dec 1951)

In a sense, 1951 marks the passing of the torch from the civil rights generation of the '30s and '40s to the generation of the '50s and '60s. The effort to save the "Martinsville Seven" at the beginning of 1951 and the "We Charge Genocide" petition at the end of the year are the concluding efforts of the "old left" labor-Marxist-New Deal alliance that had led civil rights struggles for two decades. The Student Strike at Moton High and the challenge to school segregation which culminates in Brown v Board of Education represents the emergence of a new youth-religious-legal coalition that will lead the fights of the '50s and '60s.


Pilgrimage for "Martinsville Seven," Richmond VA (1951)

The "Martinsville Seven," are seven Black men convicted of raping a white woman in Martinsville VA. They are sentenced to death by all-white, all-male juries. But in all of history, no white man has ever been given the death penalty in Virginia for the crime of rape. None of the trials last more than a day. A reporter recently characterized the process as: "It was a justice system that curbed mob-imposed lynchings by supplanting them with court- imposed exectutions."

In the tradition of the "Scottsboro Case" and the anti-lynching campaigns of the '30s and '40s, elements of the "old left" organize a campaign to prevent their execution. Led by William L. Patterson (1890-1980), grandson of a slave, Communist Party official, and head of the Civil Rights Congress, this campaign draws support from Richmond's Black community and progressive unions and organizations across the nation and around the world. Prior to the execution, 500 people — roughly half Black and half white, many from labor unions — stage a protest "pilgrimage" from Richmond to Martinsville.

The seven men are executed in February of 1951.

For more information:
Book: The Martinsville Seven: Race, Rape, and Capital Punishment
Web: 'Martinsville Seven' Case, Richmond Times-Dispatch
Personal memory: William Mandel Execution in Virginia, 1951


Student Strike at Moton High (VA) (April, 1951)

Moton — named after Robert Russa Moton who succeeded Booker T. Washington as head of the Tuskegee Institute — is the Black high school in Prince Edward County Virginia's segregated school system. Farmville, the local white high school, has a cafeteria, gym, school nurse, shop classes, and lockers for students; Moton has no such facilities — it does not even have restrooms for the teachers.

Originally built to accomodate 180 students, by the early 1950s more than 450 pupils attend Moton. It is so crowded that three classes are simultaneously taught in the auditorim, while other classes are taught in old, hand-me-down school busses. When the state of Virginia offers money to improve Moton in 1947, the all-white School Board refuses to accept it. (Since Blacks are denied the right to vote, they have no voice in electing the School Board.) Instead, the Board builds three "tar paper shacks" — freezing cold in the winter, sweltering hot in the spring — which do little to relieve the terrible over-crowding at Moton.

In the winter of 1950, Moton student Barbara Johns — niece of Alabama civil rights leader Rev. Vernon Johns — begins organizing a student strike to protest poor school conditions. She calls a secret meeting of four other trusted students to discuss the problem and plan a strategy. Slowly, carefully, they increase the clandestine committee, first to 10 and then by the Spring of 1951 to 15 of the most respected students at Moton. By April they are ready to act.

On April 23rd they lure the principal out of the school with a false phone call reporting truants causing trouble downtown. Then they forge announcements calling an immediate school assembly in the auditorium. Strike committee leaders ask all teachers to leave the hall and then Barbara takes the stage, speaks to the issue and asks the students to go out on strike to protest over- crowding and inadequate facilities. 450 students — almost the entire student body — answer her call. When the principal returns from downtown he tries to talk them out of striking, but their committment is firm — the strike is on!

The student strike committee tries to meet with the school superintendent about their demands for adequate facilities, but he refuses to see them and threatens them with expulsions. The following day, 200 of the student strikers meet with local NAACP leaders who attempt to get them to call off their strike. They refuse. With their organization solid and their committment firm, the NAACP and many of the parents now swing to their support. National NAACP leaders meet with students and parents and propose that they go beyond pushing for better schools — that they demand desegregation.

At a mass meeting on the third day of the strike, the students and their adult supporters collectively decide to sue for integration and to continue the strike until May 7, when the school year ends. The lawsuit that the NAACP files on their behalf — Davis et al v. the County School Board of Prince Edward County, VA, et al — becomes one of the five cases that are later consolodated and decided under the name Brown v Board of Education in 1954.

See Students and Parents Challenge School Segregation and Prince Edward County, VA, Closes It's Public Schools for continuation.

For more information :
     Schools and School Desegregation
     They Closed Their Schools: Prince Edward County, VA.
     Students Strike Moton High
     Kids Fight for Civil Rights (Rethinking Schools Online)
     School Desegregation


Students & Parents Challenge School Segregation
The Brown v Board of Education Cases

See Student Strike at Moton High for preceding events.


In its 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court legitimized the "Jim Crow" system of segregation that had been imposed on Blacks in the decades following the Civil War. Despite the fact that any sensible person could see that segregation laws violated the 14th and 15th Amendments of the Constitution, the court circumvented these "Equal Protection" clauses with the fictitious doctrine of "Separate But Equal."

Starting in the 1930s, the NAACP begins assembling data to prove that "separate" is not — and never can be — "equal." And the dilapidated buildings and tattered, falling apart, out-dated textbooks of the under-funded Black schools are self-evident testimony to that inequality. As the Rev. Hulme once tells the Governor of Mississippi: "[Governor, for too long] you've given us schools in which we could study the earth through the floors and the stars through the roof." Focusing on segregated school systems as the clearest example of how separate is not equal, the NAACP strategy is to challenge the obvious injustice of segregation in the lower courts, and then appeal those cases to the Supreme Court with the aim of overturning Plessy v. Ferguson.

But before NAACP lawyers can challenge segregation in the courts, there have to be Black citizens with the courage to defy segregation customs and laws in their communities in order to create the cases that the attorneys will argue. To violate the Jim Crow rules means risking verbal abuse, being fired from your job, evicted from your home, the destruction of your business, brutal beatings, jail, and lynching.

The Cases

In addition to Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County which grows out of the student strike at Moton High, the other cases consolodated under the name Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka are:

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka: In Topeka, Kansas, a black third-grader named Linda Brown has to walk more than a mile through a railroad switchyard to get to her Black elementary school, even though a white elementary school is only seven blocks away. Linda's father, Oliver Brown, tries to enroll her in the white elementary school, but the principal of the school refuses. Thirteen other Black parents take their children to schools in their neighborhoods and attempt to enroll them for the upcoming school year. All are refused admission. They sue the school board.

Bulah v. Gebhart: In Delaware the issues are similar to those in Topeka. The schools that Black children are forced to attend are clearly inferior and at much greater distance from their homes than closer white schools. A "white" bus carrying white kids to school passes Sarah Bulah's home each day, but will not pick up her daughter. She demands that a bus be provided to take Black children to school. The state refuses.

Bolling v. Sharpe: In Washington DC, the brand-new, white-only, John Philip Sousa Junior High School has empty classrooms, but Black kids are forced to attend an over-crowded school with inferior facilities. The parents of 11 Black children try to enroll them in Sousa but are denied. They sue.

Briggs v. Elliot: In Clarendon County, South Carolina, 20 Black parents ask the school board to provide busses for their children as they do for the white kids. When they are denied, they sue to end the system of segregated schools.

In the years and decades following the Supreme Court's Brown decision, the media and most of the history books focus almost entirely on the court's role, with little or no consideration for the courage and determination of those who risked life and livelihood to file the cases in the first place. One of the few who acknowledge these unsung heroes is Richard Kluger who later writes of Clarendon County, SC, civil rights leader Rev. Joseph Delaine:

Before it was over, they fired him from the little schoolhouse at which he had taught devotedly for ten years. And they fired his wife and two of his sisters and a niece. And they threatened him with bodily harm. And they sued him on trumped up charges and convicted him in a kangaroo court and left with a judgment that denied him credit from any bank. And they burned his house to the ground while the fire department stood around watching the flames consume the night. And they stoned the chnurch at which he pastored. And fired shotguns at him out of the dark. But he was not Job, and so he fired back and called the police, who did not come and kept not coming. Then he fled, driving north at eighty-five miles an hour over country roads, until he was across the state line. Soon after, they burned his church to the ground and charged him, for having shot back that night, with felonious assault with a deadly weapon, and so he became an official fugitive from justice.[1]
See NAACP Builds the Case for continuation.

For more information on school desegregation:
Books: Schools and School Desegregation
Web: School Desegregation


NAACP Builds the Case (1951-1954)

See Students and Parents Challenge School Segregation for preceding events.

In Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County which grows out of the Student Strike at Moton High, the U.S. District Court unanimously denies the student's desegregation demand claiming that: "We have found no hurt or harm to either race." Yet they do order the Prince Edward school board to improve the quality of the Black schools (which the board later refuses to do).

In the Topeka case, the NAACP argues that inherent in segregated schools is a message to Black children that they are somehow inferior to whites and that therefore, the schools are unequal. The Topeka school board's defense is that since segregation is the way of life in Topeka and elsewhere, segregated schools are "good" for Black children because they "prepare them" for the segregation they will face all their lives. Since the NAACP's long-range goal in the school cases is to overturn all forms of segregation everywhere, the Black parants are not impressed with the school board's logic.

The Topeka judges agree with the parents that: "Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children... A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn." But since Plessy v. Ferguson made "separate but equal" for Blacks and whites legal, the judges say they are "compelled" to uphold Topeka's segregated school system.

See Brown v Board of Education for continuation.

For more information on school desegregation:
Books: Schools and School Desegregation
Web: School Desegregation


"We Charge Genocide"
Petition to the United Nations (1951)

On December 17, 1951, Paul Robeson and William Patterson submit a petition from the Civil Rights Congress (CRC) to the United Nations. Titled, "We Charge Genocide: The Crime of Government Against the Negro People," the petition is signed by almost 100 American intellectuals and activists. Robeson leads a delegation to present the document at U.N. Headquarters in New York, while CRC Secretary Patterson delivers it to a U.N meeting in Paris. W.E.B DuBois is scheduled to accompany Patterson to Paris, but the U.S. State Department prevents him from leaving the country.

The book-length petition documents hundreds of lynching cases and other forms of brutality and discrmination evincing a clear pattern of government inaction and complicity. It charges that in the 85 years since the end of slavery more than 10,000 Blacks are known to have been lynched (an average of more than 100 per year), and that the full number can never be known because the murders are often unreported.

The petition cites the UN's definition of genocide: "Any intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, racial, or religious group is genocide." The petition concludes therefore, that "..the oppressed Negro citizens of the United States, segregated, discriminated against, and long the target of violence, suffer from genocide as the result of the consistent, conscious, unified policies of every branch of government. If the General Assembly acts as the conscience of mankind and therefore acts favorably on our petition, it will have served the cause of peace.

With the Cold War raging, the U.S. government maneuvers to prevent the United Nations from formally debating or even considering the charges brought in the petition. Working behind the scenes, they are able to prevent any discussion of the petition by the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. When one of the American delegates to the U.N. criticizes William Patterson for "attacking your government," Patterson replies, "It's your government. It's my country. I am fighting to save my country's democratic principles."

The American mass media gives scant coverage to the petition or the crimes it documents. The CRC is labeled a "Communist front organization," and the few Government officials who comment on the petition describe it as "Communist propaganda." Elsewhere in the world, however, it is well received and extensively covered in the press. In Europe, Africa, and Asia where the U.S. is competing against the Soviet Union and China for political influence, the document weakens American "Free World" claims and its assertion of global moral leadership, particularly among nonwhite peoples struggling against colonial rule. As the American Freedom Movement gathers strength in the following years, Cold War geo-politics influence Washington's reaction to major events like the Sit-ins, Freedom Rides, 'Ole Miss, and so on.

On his return to the U.S, Patterson's passport is seized by the State Department so he can no longer speak to foreign audiences about the denial of human rights endured by nonwhite Americans. Robeson too is prevented from leaving the country. They and other CRC leaders are harassed and persecuted by the FBI and other federal agencies for the rest of their lives.

For more information:
Web: We Charge Genocide (Peoples Weekly World)
Document: Full text of We Charge Genocide


Murder of Harry & Harriette Moore

Back in the 1930s, Harry Moore and his wife Harriette began organizing for the NAACP in central Florida. They launched a legal struggle that eventually won equal pay for Black and white teachers. In 1941, Harry became President and later Executive Director of the Florida state NAACP. Under their leadership, the NAACP eventually grew to more than 10,000 members in more than 60 branches across the state.

[Until 1944, the "all-white" primary was used to disenfranchise Blacks throughout the South. Out of hatred for Lincoln and the Republican Party, fury at their defeat in the Civil War, and rage at the Emancipation of their Black slaves, whites in the "Solid South" voted only for Democrats. With most Blacks denied the vote, no Republican could be ever be elected in the South, so the real election was the Democratic Primary. Whichever Democrat wond the primary inevitably won the general election. By limiting the Democratic Primary to whites, the few Blacks who did manage to register were effectively disenfranchised because they were not allowed to vote in the only elections that had any meaning (the primaries).]

In 1944, Thurgood Marshall wins Smith v. Allwright in the U.S. Supreme Court which rules that "all-white" primary elections are unconstitutional. With Blacks now allowed to vote in the real elections, the Moores organize the Progressive Voters League of Florida and Harry becomes its President. Florida's voter registration procedures are not as restrictive as those of neighboring Georgia and Alabama, and within a few years the Moores manage to register over 100,000 Black voters, increasing Black registration from 5% to 31% of those eligible. Their slogan is "A Voteless Citizen is a Voiceless Citizen."

For years, Harry travels Florida's muddy backroads and poorly paved highways building the NAACP, helping Blacks register, and organizing the Voters League. In the segregated south, "white" restaurants won't serve him and "white" motels won't rent him a room, many gas stations refuse to sell him fuel or let him use the restroom.

In addition to voter registration and the Voters League, investigating lynchings in and demanding justice for the victims is major focus of the Moore's work. In 1949, four young Black men are accused of raping a white girl in Lake County near Orlando — at that time a Klan stronghold. Later evidence indicates that the 17 year old girl had been beaten by her husband, and that they concocted a phony rape story to conceal the beating from her parents who had threatened to shoot him if he brutalized her again.

Charles Greenlee (age 16), and war veterans Sam Shepherd and Walter Irvin, are arrested for the supposed rape. The fourth man, Ernest Thomas manages to flee, but is gunned down by a Sheriff's posse a few days later. A mob of more than 500 white men assembles to lynch the remaining three. When they can't locate the prisoners, they form a caravan of 200 cars and descend on the Black neighborhood of Groveland where the the families of the accused men live. They shoot into homes and set some on fire. The Florida Governor has to send in the National Guard to restore order.

Willis McCall, the Sheriff of Lake County, is notorious for his brutality against Blacks. Year-after-year he is relected with the support of the citrus growers who he supplies with cheap, chain-gang prison labor at harvest time by arresting Blacks on trumped up charges for minor crimes. He also chases any and all union organizer out of the county.

The Moores discover that while in McCall's custody the three Groveland defendants were brutally beaten and made to stand on broken glass with their hands roped to a pipe over their heads. Despite this torture, they refused to confess to a crime they did not commit. Unable to force a confession, McCall's deputies manufacture enough phony evidence to convince an all-white jury. Shepherd and Irvin are sentenced to death, 16-year old Greenlee is sentenced to prison.

Meanwhile, in 1950, the NAACP's national leadership objects to Harry's dual role as both the salaried state Executive Director of the officially non-partisan NAACP and President of the Voters League which endorses candidates. In November of 1951 they remove him as Executive Director.

Greenlee chooses not to appeal out of fear that a new trial would result in a death sentence. Franklin Williams, Shepherd and Irvin's NAACP attorney, appeals their conviction and it is overturned by the Supreme Court in 1951.

In November of 1951, Sheriff McCall removes the two men from prison. While driving them to Lake County for their new trial, he shoots them, killing Shepherd and severely wounding Irvin. He claims that the two handcuffed and manacled prisoners attacked him while trying to escape. When Irvin recovers enough to speak, he describes how McCall pulled his car off the road, dragged the two men out, and began firing. The Moores demand that McCall be suspended from office and indicted for murder. No charges are ever brought against McCall.

With the mob attack on Groveland, the original rape trial, the successful appeal, and the shootings fanning the flames of racism, Harry Moore is called "The most hated Black man in Florida." His mother, visiting for the holidays, voices concern for the Moore's safety. Harry tells her, "Every advancement comes by way of sacrifice. What I am doing is for the benefit of my race."

Late in the night on Christmas Eve, 1951, a bomb explodes under Harry and Harriette's bedroom. He dies on the way to the hospital, she dies of her injuries 9 days later. They are the first Freedom Movement martyrs of the post-WWII era. Though it is widely known that the Ku Klux Klan planted the bomb, no one is ever charged in their murder.

For more information:
Book: Before His Time: The Untold Story Of Harry T. Moore
    Martyr for a Cause: Christmas Night Bomb Assasination of Harry Moore, Gloster Current, NAACP.
    "Harry T. Moore's Campaign for Racial Equality," by Jake C. Miller, Journal of Black Studies, Nov., 2000
    "Somebody has got to do that work.." by Caroline Emmons, Journal of Negro History, March 1997
Web: Harry & Harriette Moore Murder


1951 Quotation Sources:

1. Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America's Struggle for Equality

Historical Context


© Bruce Hartford
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