Monday, July 21, 2008

Honoring the Noble Side of America: The New Civil Rights Memorial in Richmond, Virginia

It was thrilling to see the dedication of the new Virginia Civil Rights Memorial in Richmond, Virginia, the "Heart of the Confederacy." The statue honors an early and largely forgotten episode in the history of the Civil Rights Movement: A 1951 protest, led by local activist Barbara Johns, against the deplorable conditions in the all-black Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville, Virginia. The main goal of the protesters was to push for a new and improved school house. They ended up becoming pioneers in the infancy of the Civil Rights Movement, several years before Rosa Parks refused to move from her seat on a public transit bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Many of the older figures depicted in the statue -- including protest organizer Barbara Johns (who passed away in 1991) -- are now dead. Sadly, they did not live to see the day when a glorious statue honoring their noble work was dedicated on the grounds of the state Capitol, where the Confederate Flag once flapped proudly in the wind.

A great deal has changed since 1951. Now, an African American is the Democratic candidate for the presidency of the United States and he stands an excellent chance of winning the election in November. If you could somehow go back to 1951 and tell Barbara Johns or any of the other protest participants that one day, there would be a statue honoring them in the heart of Dixie, or that an African American man would be running for the highest office in the land, or even that black and white kids would one day sit in the same classroom together, they'd probably think you were a foolish, wide-eyed idealist; maybe even a raving nutjob. Back in the dark days before the Civil Rights Movement, virtually nobody -- not even liberals -- envisioned the day when the virulent Jim Crow racism so pervasive across the American South would become a relic of the past.

Most inspiring is how a small group of dedicated Virginians went from door to door, raising money to finance the $2.6 million memorial. This celebration of the Civil Rights Movement was built with private funds, including a generous donations from over 400 groups. Fund raising began in 2005 and continued for the next few years. The end result is a statue depicting 18 heroic men and women -- including young students -- in what sculptor Stanley Bleifeld refers to as a "living memorial." Similar monuments have been built in other key Civil Rights Movement battlegrounds, including Columbia, S.C.; Little Rock, Ark.; Birmingham, Ala.; and Memphis, Tenn. Another memorial will soon go up in Raleigh, N.C. Lisa Collins, former First Lady of the state of Virginia, was one of the leading forces behind raising money to build the statue. One day, several years ago, her young daughter asked why only white men were commemorated on the state Capitol grounds. Thanks to the Civil Rights Movement Memorial, that has changed. As Collins put it, "It is a statement of knowing that these African Americans, who happen to be Virginians, at great personal risk brought about sweeping change to our society and legal system."

It's easy to find what's wrong with America. All you have to do is read most of the headlines in the newspaper. Sometimes, it is important to take a moment to find out what's right with America. The country has come a long way. But as Barbara Johns said fifty years ago, "It seems like we were reaching for the moon." It's important to remember that quote. Justice is not guaranteed. It takes brave people -- ordinary people with extraordinary courage, often struggling against enormous odds -- to fight for it. This memorial is a celebration of those people.

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