Kristen Green grew up in a Norman Rockwell dream of a small Southern town: porch swings, sweet tea, Sunday church, and lazy sprinklers on summer lawns. But the place that nurtured her was also the site of a deeply shameful chapter in American history—a racially mixed Virginia community whose leaders, rather than obey the desegregation laws upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954, chose to shut down its public schools entirely and open a whites-only academy, leaving thousands of black children without resources or recourse.
Green is a journalist by trade, and she builds Something Must Be Done on reams of painstaking research, interviews, and historical documents. Her motivation is personal, though, too: Her grandparents—the same kind, doting couple who lavished love, attention, and endless casseroles on her and her three brothers—were instrumental in the school closures. They and other white residents dubbed themselves the Defenders, though they weren’t necessarily the frothing, epithet-hurling bogeymen of old newsreels. As Green tells it, most “were horrified by what was happening further south: slurs being yelled at children, the Ku Klux Klan burning crosses, lynchings.” Instead, they used more insidious economic and psychological tactics to push back on integration—methods that let them maintain a genteel superiority over seething civil rights hotbeds like Louisiana and Mississippi, and had the double advantage of helping to keep their activities comfortably below the national media’s radar. (JFK and his brother, then U.S. attorney general Robert Kennedy, were eventually among those who took notice: In 1963, RFK told a Louisville, Ky., crowd that “the only places on earth known not to provide free public education are Communist China, North Vietnam, Sarawak, Singapore, British Honduras—and Prince Edward County, Virginia.”)
Something doesn’t always flow easily. Green is sympathetic, but she writes more like a beat reporter than a born storyteller, and her concerns with her own family’s legacy and hardships can feel embarrassingly misplaced. What matters is the scant but vivid voice she gives to the black citizens Prince Edward County silenced for decades, and the light the book shines on how much—and how little—has changed. B+
“The Defenders wanted to keep segregation in place, but they didn’t need to do it by killing, maiming, and burning.”