Especially for older African-Americans the scene had to be surreal. They must have thought to themselves, how is it that after long struggle here we are in 2016 listening to people stand up to defend the legacy of a segregationist who opposed integration of Virginia schools. To defend naming of all things, a SCHOOL, after him.
Some people came to the School Board meeting on March 16 to complain about the lack of community input regarding the School Board’s recent unanimous vote to change the name of Mills E. Godwin, Jr. Middle School. School board members acknowledged that issue as a valid concern and expressed their regret for having been so swept up in a solution that honored two men that they didn’t give more thought to it. But that’s where the validity ended. In yet another painful example of the ignorance and bigotry that has clouded this issue, speaker after speaker, almost all white, rose and attempted to rehabilitate the late Virginia Governor Mills E. Godwin’s legacy on school segregation. Some probably only had a cursory knowledge of the history, but many really should have known better.
If they just wanted to maintain an existing school name for the sake of tradition or convenience it would have been one thing, but instead they tried to rationalize honoring Godwin. In response, an African-American man spoke about the real harm caused by Godwin’s actions, and denying any animosity toward the late governor, urged others to simply be “real” about the facts. It was to no avail as more speakers rose to peddle a sanitized version of history designed to soothe the conscience of those upset about the name change.
When the night was almost over, and after other school board members had had their say, which included an impassioned statement by Neabsco School Board representative Diane Raulston, Chairman Ryan Sawyers spoke forcefully on behalf of historical fact.
In response to those who had tried to rationalize their views by referring to Godwin’s later “change of heart,” about segregation, Sawyers emphasized what really happened.
The 24th amendment to the constitution eliminating the poll tax for federal elections, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, all occurred in the years Godwin was preparing to run for governor. African-Americans finally, truly, had the power to vote, and they registered in record numbers. Godwin saw the need for African-American votes if he was to become governor and courted them out of necessity. Yet, once elected, and not knowing he would be running later for a non-consecutive term that might require African-American votes, Godwin allowed massive resistance to continue in Virginia. As Sawyers pointed out, it was effectively ended by Godwin’s successor, an opponent of massive resistance, A. Linwood Holton, Jr., the father of Virginia’s current Secretary of Education and father-in-law of Virginia Senator Tim Kaine. Sawyers also pointed out that at the time the school was named it was an example of yet another way for southern conservatives to poke their finger in the eye of the federal government that had forced the states to accept civil rights reforms.
With more time, Sawyers could no doubt have gone on. Godwin’s “change of heart” never included an apology. But the hour was late and maybe Sawyers knew that historical facts just don’t matter to some people.
But rest assured that they matter to us, Chairman Sawyers, and we’re thankful for the courage of you and the other speakers who came down on the side of historical fact.