(Note: the following is my keynote speech at the December 10, 2017 re-naming dedication ceremony of the Barbara Rose Johns, Farmville-Prince Edward Community Library)
What a truly good day this is.
A Sunday where we share this communion together.
I commend the Town of Farmville, Town Council and Town officials who have made this communion possible.
A communion that speaks for the transforming journey that is possible in this world when people are committed to becoming Founding Fathers, Founding Mothers, Founding Brothers and Sisters together in a nation still striving toward a more perfect union.
The United States of America is not a finished work.
The Founding Fathers did not complete the job when they signed these words:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. They are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, among them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
The Founding Fathers were just beginning the process, commencing a national journey to give full birth and long life to those founding ideals.
We are still in the course of our human event as a nation.
A human event greatly shaped by the woman we are gathered today to honor by adding her name to this building, this treasure trove of knowledge, visions, ideas, ideals and creative imagination, a hub and gathering place of open minds.
For that is what this library most definitely is, as operated and cared for with such excellence by library staff, board members and volunteers.
But this library has also now become an historic milepost on our national journey together, all of us here now deep in the course of our human event.
Not everyone in America wants us to succeed. The tragic events in Charlottesville over the summer declare the intentions of those who preach and practice racial hatred and hope to prevent us from ever making Barbara Rose Johns’ dream come true.
And Barbara, truly one of this nation’s Founding Mothers, had such a powerful dream.
She believed that the story-book ending could come true.
She believed that we would all live happily ever after.
But the world isn’t always kind to dreams.
Fairy-tale endings—even one based on the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America—are most often confined to fairytales.
After leading the historic student strike that gave birth to the Civil Rights Movement on April 23, 1951 Barbara Rose Johns had to leave Prince Edward County. A cross was burned at Robert R. Moton High School and there was a sense of danger all around. Suddenly, she was just gone, off to live with relatives in Alabama, leaving even her best friends wondering what had happened.
Three years later, the Johns home in Darlington Heights was completely destroyed by arson after the U.S. Supreme Court had validated the dream of Barbara Rose Johns with its landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision.
Prince Edward County’s Massive Resistance to the Brown decision turned the dream of Barbara Rose Johns into a nightmare.
But not forever.
Her dream is alive and well and standing in our own shoes.
The decision by the Town of Farmville to re-name this fabulous state-of-the-art library in honor of Barbara Rose Johns—who spent her entire adult life as a librarian in the Philadelphia public school system—is a milestone moment, a mile-marker showing how far the dream has traveled since 1951.
It joins the Moton Museum and Prince Edward County’s Light of Reconciliation as an indelible moral marker of this community’s progress. And it joins them as an example to a nation still so deeply divided over race.
The Barbara Rose Johns Farmville-Prince Edward Community Library will forever speak with emphatic clarity:
We shall overcome those who attempt to divide us over the God-given color of our skin.
Today, there is a Johns family home in Darlington Heights, built on the exact spot where the flames of arson had burned down the home where Barbara dreamed her dreams.
Wondrously—despite everything that had happened to drive her away—it was Barbara, herself, who had insisted that her brothers and sister re-build at their home place in Prince Edward County. And Barbara drew up much of the construction plans, herself, and consulted with the local contractor, often visiting the building supply company here in Farmville to see the materials herself.
Barbara wanted the family to have a home to come back to when they returned to Prince Edward County to visit friends and, as it turns out, to celebrate this community’s ongoing journey of racial healing and reconciliation.
A journey that offers living proof, and living hope—not only to the nation, but also to the world—that our lives, that we ourselves, can become human bridges across the deepest chasms.
Unfortunately, cancer claimed the life of Barbara Rose Johns in the fall of 1991, before construction on the new family home was complete. But she did see the foundation. And, in her mind’s eye, I am sure she saw the finished house because she was a human being of extraordinary vision, seeing things that nobody else saw.
Like her vision of “happily ever after” for us all.
Some people in this nation will shout, No, not ever.
But the Town of Farmville today provides the nation with a different answer.
Happily ever after is possible and it is what a loving God is hoping and praying that we will achieve together from sea to shining sea.
Not in the way that it is portrayed in the world of fairy tales. But in the way that life offers us happiness in the real world if we are willing to sweat and strive for it…
If we are willing to be wounded and then healed together.
Wounded and healed together.
Today, we are closer to that dream come true than we were yesterday.
And yesterday we were closer than ever seemed possible in the fall of 1959 when the schools were locked and chained.
This Sunday of communion is no fairy tale and Amen to that.
May God bless us all as our national journey together, as children of God, continues. Founding Brothers and Founding Sisters. One family. Under God Indivisible. With liberty and justice for all.