John A. Stokes Reflects On 65 Years After Brown vs. Board of Education Friday marks 65 years since the Supreme Court delivered its ruling in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. NPR's David Greene talks to John A. Stokes, one of the student plaintiffs.

65 Years After Brown v. Board of Education: 'It's Never Going To Be Easy'

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Sixty-five years ago today, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in the case of Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kan. That unanimous ruling was meant to end racial segregation in public schools. One of the student plaintiffs in that case was John A. Stokes, who is now 87 years old. As a high school senior in 1951, Stokes led a student strike protesting conditions at the all-black Moton High School outside Farmville in southern Virginia.

JOHN A STOKES: Those buildings had no running water. It had no bathrooms - had one potbelly stove that sat in the corner.

GREENE: That was in a school. Stokes, a retired educator and lifelong civil rights advocate, spoke to me from his home in suburban Maryland. And I asked him how students could even learn in those conditions.

STOKES: Our teachers ingrained in us that we had to move forward. And they had a cliche. You must build bricks out of straw, and that's what we did. They were good. They gave us the foundations to move forward. So although our environment and conditions were deplorable, we had to move beyond that because we realized that it was not just, you see, the fact that they did not have the money to provide for us. It was just the fact that they did not believe in equality. They believed in punishing us so that we would be programmed for failure.

GREENE: Well, what did you do? Tell me about the strike that you carried out.

STOKES: Oh, well, what we did - we met, and we formed a committee of 20 so we could move forward and get something done for the colored people in that neighborhood because they had not respected our parents. So we decided that we would go on strike. And on the 22nd of April, 1951, we had our last secret meeting at our little farmhouse between Hampton City and Farmville. And we made plans then as to what we were going to do because, you see, we knew that if the schools were closed, there would be some things that we would have to do. For instance, we were always taught to operate in a professional way so that we would not get in trouble with anyone and especially not get in trouble with the law because we knew that they were against us. You know, they wanted to do everything they could to have us to fail, so we did. We went on strike.

GREENE: Well, can I ask you about today? I mean, I think about Martin Luther King famously quoting that 19th century clergyman who said, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. I mean, 65 years after this Supreme Court decision - and we've seen the issue of segregated schools persist in our country. I mean, how long do you think this will take?

STOKES: A long time. It's not easy. It's never going to be easy because, you see, we can make any law we wish to make, but it has to be in the confines of a person's heart. It has to be a moral issue. It has to be how a person feels in their heart about another human being.

GREENE: Well, Mr. Stokes, it's been a real honor and pleasure talking to you. Thank you so much.

STOKES: Thank you, sir.


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