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03-02-2005, 06:31 AM
On the homefront

A Roanoke exhibit documents the role of everyday people in during 'massive resistance' in Virginia.

By Mike Hudson
The Roanoke Times

They are faded black-and-white images of another era, stark television news clips from the days when the law and custom of racial supremacy were under attack.

In the 1950s, Virginia Gov. J. Lindsay Almond of Roanoke complains of integrationists who "want to destroy our way of life" with their "pretend concerns."

In the 1960s, a line of black and white protesters pickets outside The Roanoke Times building, carrying signs that say, "Why Advertise In A Segregated Newspaper?" and "Freedom Of The Press For All!"

People, black and white, speak to the cameras about their hopes and fears about school integration in Floyd County, Bedford County, Front Royal and Alexandria.

These news clips run on a continual loop in a video that's part of "The Civil Rights Movement in Virginia," an exhibit now showing in downtown Roanoke at the History Museum & Historical Society of Western Virginia.

The sprawling exhibit, put together by the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond, offers an array of items documenting the rise and decline of segregation in the Old Dominion, including newspaper clippings, photos, videotaped interviews, even a woman's Ku Klux Klan uniform.

One item that was added to the exhibit when it moved from Richmond to Roanoke is a tall wooden cross wrapped in burlap, circa 1970. It had been intended for burning on the front lawn of the home of a Hollins College professor who was housing a young white woman who was dating a black man. The would-be fiery cross failed to ignite and, nearly a quarter-century later, was donated to the Western Virginia history museum.

Kent Chrisman, the museum's executive director, said the popular media image of the civil rights struggle is often composed of pictures of "guys from Alabama and Mississippi running around in white robes" trying to stop black protesters from sitting down at lunch counters.

But the truth, Chrisman said, is that "there were a lot of other people dragging their feet, including many of us here in Virginia."

Many of the state's elected officials pledged "massive resistance" to school integration, and some localities closed their schools rather than desegregate them.

Other citizens fought to break that resistance. The state was the site of sit-ins and mass demonstrations and was the birthplace of many of the key legal cases that helped bring down Jim Crow segregation. A lawsuit in Prince Edward County, for example, was joined with other cases around the country to form the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing school segregation.

Chrisman noted, too, that manypeople don't realize that the civil rights movement helped not only minority Americans. Poor whites also benefited from the elimination of poll taxes and literacy tests for voters, and women benefited from the creation of laws outlawing discrimination in the workplace.

Lauranett Lee of Chesterfield County, the exhibit's curator, said she strove to bring to life the stories of "everyday folks who made history."

"Usually, when people talk about the civil rights movement, they talk about people being hosed down in the street or with dogs at their heels," Lee said. "I wanted to show what was going on behind the scenes."

Included among these everyday folks are the children and teenagers who helped drive the movement.

Many young people don't think of themselves as being part of history, Lee said. They think of the young people who joined the struggle as rebels. But the truth, she said, is that "these were just very conscientious people who really believed that America was not living up to its ideals."

The History Museum & Historical Society of Western Virginia is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $3 for adults and $2 for students and seniors.

"The Civil Rights Movement in Virginia" will be up through April 22. The History Museum & Historical Society of Western Virginia is at Center in the Square in downtown Roanoke.