Last week I ended a walking tour of Capitol Grounds as I always do with a stop at the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial that is between the Executive Mansion and the Capitol. The Memorial is very attractive as a physical structure, and the story it tells is especially meaningful to Virginia’s history. Featured prominently on the Memorial is a bronze statue of 16-year-old high school student Barbara Johns. In April of 1951 Barbara had become increasingly upset at the fact that she had to attend school in a tar-paper building without adequate heat or a gymnasium while the white kids in the area attended a new brick school.
The plan she put together led to all the students walking out to dramatize the unfairness and inequities of the segregated school system. Once the differences were so dramatically shown, there was no going back. Two NAACP lawyers agreed to represent the students, and their case made it to the Supreme Court and was combined with the Brown v. Board of Education case decided in 1954. It took another decade for Virginia to desegregate its schools.
As I recounted that story to the visitors to the Capitol it became clear to me that we are at another Barbara Johns moment in Virginia albeit of a very different kind. I shared my realization with members of the House of Delegates in a floor speech last week. I pointed out that the children of the Commonwealth are bringing to our attention our failure to pass any kind of legislation to keep them safe from gun violence. Not only have common-sense gun safety bills not been passed, they have been defeated with the most minimal debate and with as few as four votes in a subcommittee defeating them. A bill that would have allowed guns in places of worship was withdrawn at the very last minute.
As guns and the violence of which they are a part proliferate, the students through their walking out of schools and by their expressions of concern are seeking answers that incumbent legislators are going to have to answer. I told my colleagues that we could expect when we get back home in a few weeks to get questions as to our lack of action to address gun violence as an issue that warranted our attention. We can expect to get these questions first from our children and our grandchildren and at appearances at educational and civic events. There really is not an adequate answer that will make sense to the children and to parents. My youngest grandchildren often follow my answers to their questions with a follow-up, “why?” Try telling a child that one person’s constitutional right can take away another person’s life.
Society had to answer the questions raised by Barbara Johns and her classmates even as it took decades. We now have to answer the questions raised by the children at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida and those expressed here in Virginia. The General Assembly cannot tarry in taking action. Lives depend on it!