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The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

Briggs v. Elliot (South Carolina)

In 1947, James Hinton, chair of the S.C. Conference of the NAACP, gave a speech at Allen University, where he challenged the audience to find a teacher or preacher who would locate "a plaintiff to test the legality of the discriminatory bus-transportation practices" in the state.

In the audience was Rev. Joseph Armstrong DeLaine, principal of Silver School, located near the town of Summerton, S.C.

Three years later, Rev. DeLaine, Harry and Eliza Briggs, and a handful of others, with the help of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, filed Briggs v. Elliot in federal district court, one of five cases that would eventually be combined into what is commonly known as Brown v. Board of Education.

Background

For black students in Summerton, none of whom had bus transportation, getting to school sometimes involved a walk as long as eight miles each way.

According to local school officials, since the African American community did not pay much in taxes, it would be unfair to expect white taxpayers to provide transportation for African American school children. Despite a letter writing campaign for equal transportation launched by Rev. DeLaine, school officials yielded no ground.

Facing defeat, African American parents collected donations within their community and purchased a second-hand school bus, whose many repairs ultimately proved to be too costly for the parents.

Rev. DeLaine next approached District Superintendent L.B. McCord, who refused to even consider Rev. DeLaine's request for equal transportation. DeLaine then turned to the courts, locating a parent-Levi Pearson-who was brave enough to bring a court case to challenge the bus policy.

Levi Pearson's three children had to walk nine miles each way to Scott's Branch School from their family farm. The state superintendent ignored Pearson's initial petition for equal transportation.

The Case

In 1948, a local attorney, together with Thurgood Marshall, sued the county board in federal district court, but the case was dismissed on jurisdictional grounds without reaching the merits.

In 1949 the state NAACP stepped in and agreed, with the helpof national NAACP funding, to sponsor a case that would go beyond transportation and ask for equal educational opportunities in Clarendon County.

Rev. Delaine and a local parent, Modjeska Simpkins, took the lead in petitioning the school board and finding local residents willing to sign the petition. The first two names on the petition were those of Harry Briggs, a service station attendant, and his wife, Eliza Briggs, who worked as a maid. Both of the Briggs were fired from their jobs after signing the complaint. Rev. DeLaine, who had become principal of Scott's Branch High School, was also fired.

Despite the economic cost, for Mrs. Simpkins it was a simple matter of getting for her own children what other children had. " Our children didn't have a bus; they didn't have desks." The school board refused to take any action on the petition.

Briggs v. Elliott was filed in May of 1950. As the case progressed, it moved from simply pursuing equalization of facilities and obtaining buses, to attacking segregation.

The decision by the three-judge panel held that the school must be equalized but not integrated. The one dissenter, Judge Walter Warring, wrote, "segregation is per se inequality." He was later forced to leave the state by a joint resolution of the South Carolina House of Representatives.

The ruling set the stage for Briggs to be appealed to the Supreme Court, where it was combined with four other desegregation cases, including Brown v. Board.

After Brown

Despite success in the Supreme Court, the struggle for educational equity in Clarendon County continued.

The state legislature implemented a plan of "massive resistance." In October 1955, just a few months after the Supreme Court ruled that schools should be integrated with "all deliberate speed," whites threatened to kill Rev. DeLaine if he did not leave town.

A week later, his church was burned; on the 10th day after the threat, DeLaine heard gunfire outside his home. He fired two shots at cars in the street, hoping to mark the vehicles as the sheriff had told him to do-then fled the state he had called home.

Summerton's schools have faced an uphill battle as well. It took twelve years before the first blacks were allowed to attend the all-white Summerton High School in 1966. But many white students already had left for the all-white private school called Clarendon Hall, which had opened the year before.

"In Summerton, when the whites left, they said they would never come back, and they haven't," says Leola Parks, executive assistant to Clarendon No. 1 Superintendent Clayton Willie and one of the first blacks to attend Summerton High.

A Snapshot of Clarendon County

Like many counties in the South that had an entrenched history of racism and segregation, when integration finally reached Clarendon County's schools, they suffered nearly total white abandonment. In 2001, the average black students in the county attended schools that were 95 percent black. 

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