Briggs v. Elliott (1954)
History books record that the case which ultimately ended school segregation
was Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. However, one could justifiably argue that the
decision really began in South
Carolina in the case known as Briggs v. Elliott.
Because school desegregation came so slowly, some observers may discount the
importance of the 1954 Supreme Court decision that overturned the
"separate but equal doctrine" of the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson
case. Substantial desegregation only came after much protest and after the
Congress threatened the cutoff of federal funds for those schools that did not
desegregate. Moreover, with the opening of private all-white academies and with
white flight from cities, desegregation is still incomplete, even more than a
half century after the decision.
However, the decision, despite the little immediate impact it had on daily
life in public schools, served as a catalyst for a wide range of other actions.
It also had symbolic importance that created support for other actions around
the nation. In its unanimous decision, the Supreme Court told the nation that
the law was now on the side of those who wanted to make the guarantee of equal
treatment in the Fourteenth Amendment a reality. The case put segregationists
on the defensive.
To understand the decision, one needs to look at what life was like in South Carolina for
African-Americans in the middle of the 1900s. Life was almost totally
segregated, except when it was convenient for whites. Under "Jim
Crow," the name used for laws and practices that enforced segregation,
blacks could not use state parks, except in designated areas, sat in the rear
of buses and trains, were restricted to the balcony of theaters, had separate
fountains, waiting rooms in doctors' offices, could not eat in restaurants, and
could not use public restrooms except for those specifically marked
"colored," which were invariably in poor condition and often
unavailable or unisex. Implied threats restricted blacks in rural areas to
going to town on Saturdays only, while whites went when they pleased. In Charleston police would chase away any black women who
dared to push their own children in strollers or carriages around Colonial Lake. But they were allowed to push the
white children for whom they served as nannies. More particularly, one needs to
look at life in the public schools in Clarendon County,
where the Briggs case started. The
numbers alone tell a clear story of separation and gross inequality. In 1951
the county spent $166.45 on each white student, while it spent $44.32 on each
black student ("The State Paid Dearly"; Edgar, 99).
The case began as a simple request to provide bus transportation. In
addition to having separate and very inferior facilities, black children had to
walk to school, sometimes many miles. White children rode buses. In 1947
Reverend Joseph Armstrong DeLaine, then the principal of Silver Grade School, which
was three miles north of Summerton, attended a speech at Allen University in
Columbia at which he heard James Hinton, Chair of the S.C.
Conference of the NAACP, talk about the need for an equal education in
order for blacks to find success. Hinton 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 (Hornsby,
2). DeLaine went home and spoke to parents about the lack of transportation. At
parents' urging he asked school officials to provide a bus for black
students (Gona). The white superintendent of the schools, a fellow minister,
said that black citizens did not pay enough taxes to support a bus and that
asking white taxpayers to do this would be unfair. State officials said that
was a local problem. So DeLaine and some parents bought an old bus and maintained it
themselves. But despite their best efforts, it broke down frequently. So DeLaine located a parent 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 (Hornsby,
In 1948 Columbia Attorney Harold Boulware and Thurgood Marshall, a young
NAACP lawyer in New York,
filed Pearson's case. The U.S. District Court dismissed the petition after
school officials found that Pearson's farm was partially located in an adjacent
school district to that in which his children actually went to school and that
he had paid taxes in that different district (Gona). It ruled
that Pearson had no "standing" to bring the case and the petition was
withdrawn. However, Pearson
became a local hero in the black community and was elected President of the new
NAACP chapter there. The white community punished him by cutting off his credit
and refusing to buy the timber his farm produced (Hornsby, 4-5; Woods,
"Modjeska Simkins and the NAACP," 109).
In 1949 the state NAACP stepped in and agreed, with the help of national
NAACP funding, to sponsor a case that would go beyond transportation and ask
for equal educational opportunities in Clarendon County.
Attorney Harold Boulware, who worked with the South Carolina branch, working in
collaboration with Thurgood Marshall, developed a legal petition to start the
case (Joseph A. De Laine, Jr., personal email).
DeLaine helped recruit twenty local residents to sign the petition.
All knew economic reprisals would greet those brave enough to place their
names on the petition. The first two names 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. Harry Briggs had to move to Florida to find work to support his family.
He remained there for about ten years, only seeing his family on some weekends
(Brinson). DeLaine was also fired from his job as principal of Silver Grade School (Gona). Others who
signed were fired from their jobs as well (Hornsby, 4-7; Robinson, Civil Rights
Pioneer," A18; Woods, "Mojeska Simkins and the NAACP," 109).
Annie Gibson and Maize Solomon, who worked as maids at the Windsor motel, were two other signers who
were fired. Solomon remembers that her boss told her that "You don't know
what you are doing," that Reverend DeLaine had pressured her to do what he
wanted. She replied that she did know what she was doing, that "I have my
own mind. I know what is right...if I didn't know what I was doing, how did I
make his laundry come out right." She remembers that he got so hot and red
in the face that he just walked away saying that she would not have a job. For
her it was a simple matter of getting for her own children what his children
had. "Our children didn't have a bus; they didn't have desks"
In retrospect, some of the attempts at retribution were comical. Police
accused Harry Briggs of letting his hogs into a white neighbor's field.
However, Harry Briggs knew that his hogs had already been taken to market, so
he volunteered to help shoot the trespassers (Brinson). Modjeska
Simpkins helped those who were economically punished for their role in the
case, making appeals for support from northern black churches and personally
distributing clothing and food (Woods, "Mojeska Simpkins: Civil Rights
Activist," 1012-3). The school board refused to take any action on the
petition (Hornsby, 6).
Federal District Court Judge Waties Waring, who earlier had ruled against
the white primary in South Carolina,
intimated that he wanted a case that did more than ask for equal facilities. He
wanted a case that would challenge the entire notion of "separate but
equal," the existing law under the 1896 Plessy decision. One story,
told by John McCray, who edited the African-American Columbia newspaper, The
Lighthouse and Informer, was that Waring had reached a secret agreement
with Walter White of the national NAACP while attending social gatherings with
their wives in New York.
According to the story, Waring called Marshall
and told him that White wanted the petition changed to directly attack the Plessy
decision. So in late 1950 Marshall
formally amended the complaint (Woods, "Modjeska Simkins and the
A three judge federal panel heard the case in late May of 1951. In addition
to Judge Waring, who would almost certainly find in favor of the plaintiffs,
the other two judges were George Bell Timmerman, a segregationist who would
offset Waring's vote, and Judge John Parker, who would hold the deciding vote.
Parker was seen as a liberal, but one who wanted slow change.
Marshall and his legal team used the testimony of sociologist Kenneth Clark,
who argued that segregation caused severe psychological damage to African
American children, giving them a feeling of inferiority. The court ruled 2 to 1
against Briggs and the other parents from Clarendon County
(Hornsby, 12; Woods, "Modjeska Simkins and the NAACP," 111). The
majority only ruled that the County must make facilities equal (Hornsby, 15).
Waring wrote a dissenting opinion saying that "segregation is per se
This set the stage for an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. In fact, Briggs
was the first desegregation case to reach the court. In 1952 the Supreme Court
returned the case to the district court for rehearing after Clarendon County
school officials sent a report on progress in making facilities equal. In March
the district court again heard the case. The Court found that progress had been
made towards equality. Marshall
argued that this may be true, but that the real issue was that as long as
separation existed, the schools would be unequal. So the case was re-appealed
to the Supreme Court in May (Hornsby, 15-16).
In June the Supreme Court combined the case with Brown, and placed Brown
before Briggs, so that the formal name of the case became Brown v. Board
of Education of Topeka, Kansas. According to Justice Tom Clark, the
Court decided to use the name of another case outside the South so that the
nation would not see the case as just a Southern case (Woods, "Modjeska
Simkins and the NAACP," 111). The Court scheduled the case to be heard in
October. But just before oral arguments began, the Court combined Brown
and Briggs with a desegregation case from Virginia. This postponed the case till
December. Then the Court added two other cases, one from Delaware
and one from the District of Columbia
When the Supreme Court listened to oral arguments on December 9, 1952, John
W. Davis represented South Carolina.
Legal observers regarded Davis
as one of the best appellate lawyers in the nation. He argued that the state
had made sufficient progress in equalizing the schools under the Plessy
doctrine of "separate but equal" (Hornsby 17).
The state did have a factual basis for this claim if one looked only at
physical facilities. The state had addressed the pitiful state of education for
blacks in the state relative to whites. Governor James Byrnes, just after
taking office in 1951, called for new monies to help equalize the schools. He
told the legislature: "It is our duty to provide for the races substantial
equality in school facilities. We should do it because it was right. For me,
that is the reason. If any other person wants an additional reason, I say it is
wise." Of course the additional reason was fear that unequal facilities
could lead to court ordered desegregation. So the legislature passed a three
cents sales tax, the first sales tax the state ever passed. Most of the new
money was used to aid black schools. For example, in Clarendon County,
$103,000 was spent in construction on white schools and more than eight times
that much, $894,000, was spent on black school construction (Edgar, 100;
"The State Paid Dearly").
Thurgood Marshall argued for the NAACP. He claimed that regardless of what
had been spent, "the significant point was that segregation took African
Americans out of the mainstream of American life," and that the
Constitution did not place minority rights on an alter to be sacrificed to
majority opinion (Hornsby, 17).
All those who were anxiously awaiting the decision were disappointed. In
June of 1953 the Court announced that it would not give a decision and would
rehear the case in its next term. In preparing for this rehearing the Court
told both sides that it wanted answers to five questions.
1) Did any evidence exist showing what those who wrote the Fourteenth
Amendment intended with respect to racial separation in public schools? (The
Fourteenth Amendment says that "No state shall...deny to any person within
its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.")
2) If those who proposed and ratified the amendment did not think it would
apply immediately to public schools, did they feel that some Congress in the
future might use the power of enforcement to make it apply to public schools,
or did they understand that the judicial branch might apply it to the schools?
3) Is it within judicial power to interpret the Amendment to end
4) and 5) dealt with questions of what the Court should do if it decides
that legally enforced separation violates the Fourteenth. Simply decree that
minority children could choose which school to attend within some reasonable
geographic area? Allow for a time of gradual adjustment? Give detailed decrees
in each case? Appoint a special officer to make recommendations for each
situation? Remand the cases to lower courts? And if so, how detailed should the
instructions be (Kluger, 615-16; Hornsby, 17-18)?
By the time the Court reconvened in the fall of 1953, it had a new Chief
Justice, Earl Warren. Warren
had replaced Chief Justice Fred Vinson, who died of a heart attack on September
8. Vinson had been opposed to overturning the "separate but equal"
doctrine in Plessy, so the prospects for a new precedent were greatly
improved with his passing. Justice Frankfurter, who wanted Plessy
overturned, is said to have remarked to a clerk that the timing of Vinson's
death just before re-argument was "the first indication I have ever had
that there is a God" (Kluger, 656).
Earl Warren would turn out to be one of the most powerful, effective, and
liberal Chief Justices in American history. A native of California,
Warren had a
long political career as a district attorney and then governor (Kluger,
659-664). He was not that familiar with the Washington, D.C.
area. One story is that before the Court announced its monumental decision in
the spring of 1954, he took a tour of the Virginia Civil War battlefields. Warren's driver, an African-American, dropped him off for
the night at a hotel in Virginia.
When the driver picked up Warren the next
asked him where he had stayed. His driver replied that he had slept in the car
because no hotels in the area accepted blacks. Warren was shocked and immediately ended his
tour (Kluger, 699). One can speculate how this experience affected his thinking
about the case. Warren
was also sensitive to the role he had played as governor in promoting the
relocation of Japanese-Americans into detention camps during World War II. This
regret, revealed in the autobiography published after his death (Kluger,
661-2), may also have played a role.
Oral arguments began on December 7, 1953. Spottswood Robinson, a white Richmond lawyer, made the
initial argument for the NAACP. He tried to answer the first question about the
intentions of those who wrote the Fourteenth Amendment. Robinson used
statements made by one member of Congress during the debate over the Amendment,
that it would ban separate schools. Marshall
followed Robinson, hoping to discuss the line of decisions that had followed Plessy, which were chipping away at the
separate but equal doctrine. However, the Justices insisted that he address the
question of whether it would be proper to use its judicial power to end school
segregation. Unfortunately, Marshall
was not prepared to answer this question, and he floundered badly under intense
questioning (Kluger, 667-71).
In the last of his 140 appearances before the Supreme Court, the 80 year old
Davis made an eloquent argument in presenting South Carolina's side.
He presented a strong factual argument that those who wrote the Amendment and
those who ratified it did not intend it to apply to schools. Because
enforcement powers of Congress were limited to what the amendment covered, it
could not use the Amendment to justify a law ending public school segregation.
Moreover, the Court had ruled seven times that the "separate but
equal" interpretation was the proper way to read the Fourteenth. Davis then went on to show how difficult desegregation
would be in a place like Clarendon
County with 2,800 black
students and 300 white ones (Kluger, 672. Gona disputes these numbers). Even if each class had roughly 27 blacks and 3
whites, what difference would it make, he asked. He ended as he had argued the
year before, that South Carolina
had made a good faith effort to improve black schools. He feared that this kind
of equality would be lost if the Court tried to act like a school board.
Thurgood Marshall recalled that Davis
was so emotional at the end that he had tears falling down his cheeks.
Had the case turned on law and precedent alone, Davis probably would have carried the day.
But the case also rested in the political and social environment that was
moving inevitably to undermine segregation (Kluger, 671-3).
The other lawyers speaking for the states under attack argued that
segregation in schools had actually helped blacks by gradually moving them
above the low status they had as slaves. If only the justices knew the
conditions that existed in the South, they would allow good-hearted whites to
move the process forward at the pace they deem best (Kluger, 673). These highly
paternalistic arguments ignored the vast history of neglect and discrimination
that was readily available for anyone to see.
Thurgood Marshall had some time remaining for rebuttal the next day, and
this time he was better prepared. He quickly knocked away the argument that
segregation had helped both races. He spoke of the absurdity of having children
of both races playing together in the streets and on the farms, and of previous
court rulings that both should go to the same colleges and universities, "but
if they go to the (same) elementary and high school, the world will fall
compared the school segregation laws to the old "Black Codes," laws
passed by Southern states just after the Civil War, to keep those seen as
inferior in their place. The only justification this practice could have is
that "Negroes are inferior to all other human beings" (Kluger, 674).
Assistant Attorney General J. Lee Rankin spoke for the national government,
which took the position supporting the end of school segregation. He argued
that the Court had concurrent responsibility with Congress in the matter, and
that if Congress did not choose to act, that did not mean that the Court could
not act. Public education had evolved into compulsory practice, and once offered
universally, it became a right that must be provided "on the same basis
(for) all citizens." Rankin got into the details of how integration should
be done, arguing that cases should be sent back to lower courts ordering them
to force states to come up with desegregation plans within a year. He foresaw a
case by case process.
Several justices worried that a case by case process would lead to a situation where
desegregation took place very quickly in some areas where district judges act
quickly, and "in some other districts it is twelve years before they get a
hearing" (Kluger, 675-6). Of course, that is precisely how it turned out.
As every student of the Supreme Court knows, the Court can only issue orders.
It must depend on others to carry them out.
The oral arguments took place in early December. Chief Justice Warren said
little. On Saturday morning of December 12, when the justices met at their
first private conference after the oral arguments, Warren, as Chief Justice, spoke first. He
said that the case seemed simple to him. Laws enforcing segregation can only be
upheld if the court believes that blacks are inferior to whites (Hornsby, 18;
Kluger, 678-9). The Court seemed to be moving toward a new interpretation of
the Fourteenth Amendment. The questions were how the decision would be worded
and whether it would be unanimous. Warren
feared a simple majority decision would be so muddled that it would give
segregationists hope to delay and hold out longer. He decided to delay even a
tentative vote and allow time for justices to talk it over informally before
attempting to write an opinion. Warren’s
leadership helped the Court reach a unanimous decision that was relatively
clear and simple enough for most literate people to understand (Kluger 683).
After much informal discussion and many internal memos that involved both
the justices and their law clerks, the justices met in February or March and
tentatively voted. Neither the date nor the tally is recorded because the
justices wanted to keep their decision secret until it was announced. The best
guess is that the initial vote was eight to one, with only Kentuckian Justice Stanley Reed dissenting. Warren assigned the
writing of the opinion to himself. He felt that he could use the process to bring
Reed along and dissuade others from writing confusing concurring opinions that
agreed with the result but were based on different legal reasons (Kluger, 694).
By mid-May Warren
had accomplished all this, writing an opinion that was described by Justice
Jackson's clerk as "simple and unobtrusive... (he) had a keen sense of
what you could say in this opinion without getting everybody's back up...it
didn't pretend that the Fourteenth Amendment was more helpful than the history
suggested... ." (Kluger, 697). Warren
got Reed's support, convincing him that the decision needed to be made
unanimously for the good of the nation. He ultimately conceded only one point
to Reed, that the decision would call for gradual desegregation so as to
minimize turmoil (Kluger, 698).
On May 17, 1954, Earl Warren read this relatively short opinion in open
court. He said that the historical record about the intentions of those who
wrote the Fourteenth Amendment was "inconclusive." This suggested
that the most powerful argument made by those defending segregated schools had
been rejected. He added that the changed nature of education also renders the
historical record less relevant. What was largely private when the Amendment
was passed had now become public and tax supported and central to the
development of good citizenship. He noted that segregation had been a problem
outside the South as well and in some places that had only recently abolished
After talking about the historical cases that led up to Brown, Warren posed the central
question of the case: "Does segregation of children in public
schools...deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational
opportunities." His answer and the decision came next: "We believe
that it does." His explanation for moving beyond tangible factors of
equality, as South Carolina
was attempting to do, rested on an extension of the Court's earlier decision in
Sweatt v, Painter, a case that
involved law schools. The Court took into account the prestige of the
“equal” law school Texas had
attempted to build for blacks so that Texas
would be in compliance with Plessy. In Brown, intangible factors were also critical. "To separate
them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race
generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may
affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone."
Speaking directly to Plessy, Warren
noted that Plessy had rejected the claim that separation placed a
"badge of inferiority" upon the "colored" race. The Court
had then said that nothing in the segregation laws did this; rather, it was
only that blacks had chosen to interpret it that way. His answer was that "Whatever
may have been the extent of psychological knowledge at the time of Plessy v.
Ferguson, this finding is amply supported by modern authorship." Warren footnoted seven
works by social scientists that supported the negative effects of segregation
on school-aged children. He ended with the stark clear conclusion that "in
the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no
place. Separate facilities are inherently unequal."
dealt with the question of how all this would be done. The Court called for
additional arguments the next term, with input from all parties, as to how the
decrees for desegregation would be written. This meant that another year would
pass before South Carolina and other states with segregated schools would know
exactly what they would have to do and when they would have to do it. For the
complete text of the decision go to the following Web site:
The following year, April 1955, in what legal scholars call Brown II
by, the Court heard arguments about how the walls of segregation would be taken
down. John Davis had died, and he was replaced by S. Emory Rogers, a lawyer
from Summerton. Davis
had said before his death that he wanted no part in the writing of decrees. Rogers flatly asserted that in Clarendon County
integration could not work because of the overwhelming number of blacks in the
population. He asked for the decree to be sent with no instructions to the
lower court where he thought "something could be worked out" that
would be consistent with the attitudes of whites who were unwilling to send
their children to schools that were predominantly black. The obvious
implication was that whites in the county would desegregate when they were
willing to desegregate. When confronted by Earl Warren on whether an
"honest" attempt would be made by whites, Rogers answered with some defiance that
"we would not conform--we would not send our white children to the Negro
schools." Some observers felt that Warren
was on the verge of citing Rogers
Robert Figg, "the best courtroom lawyer in Charleston,"
who had earlier assisted Davis, also spoke for South Carolina. He took
a more respectful stance, stating that the state would follow the law, but that
it would not be easy in a place that was totally segregated, much more
segregated than the places where other cases came from, like Kansas
or the District of Columbia.
He argued that much progress had been made, and that the state was not too far
behind areas of New Jersey
that had desegregated their schools in the last few years (Kluger, 733).
argued that although whites might "not like to go to school with the
Negro...that is not saying he won't." Marshall expressed shock at the argument that
the government was not powerful enough to enforce the Constitution. Virginia had objected on
the grounds that health standards of blacks were too low. Marshall replied that they were apparently
high enough to have blacks prepare food for whites and care for white children.
that the South could not be trusted to move by its own timetable. He noted that
five years to admit a black to its state law school after the Court had made a
clear decision. He said that prejudice was the only reason why Southern states
wanted more time to desegregate where the population of blacks was high. Using
evidence compiled by local NAACP units around the South, he ended by saying
that the South had done nothing to comply and would do nothing "until the
time limit is set" (Kluger, 735-6).
Earl Warren again wrote the opinion for the Court, which was wrestling with
the question of how fast it could push change and still be effective. He
settled upon the phrase "with all deliberate speed," which he
borrowed from a U.S.
government brief written in the original case by a former clerk to Justice
Frankfurter (Kluger, 742). Thurgood Marshall saw this somewhat
self-contradictory phrase as like the tortoise in the fable of the tortoise and
the hare, who moved with all deliberate speed and ultimately won the race
Chief Justice Warren read this second unanimous opinion on May 31, 1955. It had
only seven paragraphs. It restated the finding of Brown I from a year
earlier, that discrimination in public schools was unconstitutional and that
all laws at all levels must yield to this finding. He then said that to account
for local situations, the Court was remanding, or sending, the cases to local
district courts. He said that the lower Courts might take into account local
obstacles that may exist, but that they must nevertheless "make a prompt
and reasonable start toward full compliance...." Any delay wanted by the
defendants would only be granted if they could prove that the delay was
required for the "public interest." He listed possible reasons for
delay: buildings that were inadequate, transportation equipment, changing laws
and district lines. Notably absent was any mention of local attitudes. The
opinion ended with the words: "the cases are remanded to the District
Courts to take such proceedings and enter such orders and decrees consistent
with this opinion as are necessary and proper to admit to public schools on a
racially nondiscriminatory basis with all deliberate speed the parties to these
cases." The Court failed to set any precise compliance date, as Marshall had wanted
Reaction to both decisions among South
Carolina whites was one of massive anger. Prominent
citizens, including ministers, petitioned the legislature to block federal
court action. Klan groups resurfaced around the state (Edgar, 101). Rev.
Delaine's church was burned, his house attacked and burned, and he was forced
to flee the state for his life. He could not return to the state because South Carolina charged
him with assault for shooting back (Brinson; Botsch et al, 179-80). White
Citizens Councils, a less violent and more middle-class version of the Klan,
sprung up around the state. They applied economic sanctions on those who
challenged segregated schools. In 1956 the legislature passed a law making
membership in the NAACP illegal for any state employee.
Those few whites who spoke for moderation were also sanctioned. Florence Morning
News Editor Jack O'Dowd had called for obeying the law. He was pressured to
resign. USC fired Dr. Chester Travelstead, the College of Education Dean, after
he called for compliance with the ruling. Governor Timmerman forced SC State to
winnow from the faculty any pro-integration activists (Edgar, 101-2). Hatred
for Chief Justice Earl Warren permeated the white South. This author remembers
as a child visiting relatives in South
Carolina and seeing more than one billboard with big
block letters saying "Impeach Earl Warren," sponsored by the
ultra-conservative John Birch Society. Nationally syndicated columnist James
Reston, a Virginia
native, denounced the decision in a New York Times article on the day
after the initial Brown decision as a "sociological decision"
based more on social science than history and law (Kluger, 711).
The history of what has followed since Briggs and Brown is
mixed. While the decision led to significant school integration in many places
and certainly helped set off a great civil rights movement across the nation,
it had much less effect in Clarendon
County. As S. Emory
Rogers defiantly predicted, whites did refuse to send their children to schools
where a majority of the children were and still are black. In the mid-1990s
Clarendon's school district was 98% black, and local school leaders were still
looking for total community support for their schools. Most of the whites, who
make up 45% of the county population, send their children to private schools
And what of those who began this open challenge in the little county of Clarendon? Reverend DeLaine spent most
of the rest of his life in New York,
where he founded a new church and served as its minister. He lived out his
retirement years in Charlotte,
N.C., just over the border from
his home state that had made him an exile. He remained there till his death in
1974, almost exactly twenty years after the decision in the famous case he
helped start (Botsch et al, 180; Kluger, 778).
Harry Briggs died in 1986. His wife Eliza, lived long enough for the state
to recognize the positive nature of her contribution and sacrifice. South Carolina awarded
her its highest honor, the Order of the Palmetto. She lived out most of the
rest of her years in the house where she and her husband had signed the
original petition. Most of Briggs’ children along with the children of
over 100 other petitioners left the state and found success elsewhere. Ms.
Briggs eventually joined her children in New
In September of 1998 Eliza Briggs died. As a co-signer of the original
petition asking for equal facilities in Clarendon County District 22, her name
was second on the list—just after that of her husband, Harry Briggs, for
whom the case was named. Ironically, Eliza Briggs outlived George Wallace by
two days. Wallace, Alabama's former governor, more than any
other governor in the South, stood for opposition to the case she helped start
(Robinson, "Civil rights Pioneer"). Although she died in New York,
she was buried in Summerton, where her funeral drew people from all ranks of
society to pay tribute to this very ordinary person who had the extraordinary
courage to do what was right (Robinson, "Summerton Says Goodbye").
One of the greatest costs of segregation and unequal opportunity for the
state has been the loss of generations of brainpower. Perhaps the actions of
all these ordinary yet extraordinarily brave people will enable future
generations to stay and help South
Carolina finally prosper.
Brinson, Claudia Smith. "The Fires of Change That Would Sweep through
the Nation's Schools Flarred in Rural
in the late 1940s and '50s." The State (May 15, 1994), D1, 6.
De Laine, Joseph A., Jr. Personal e-mail to author concerning his best
recollections of who authored the original petition and his father’s
involvement, October 5, 2008.
Edgar, Walter. South Carolina
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Robinson, Bill, "Civil rights pioneer Eliza Briggs Dies at 81." The
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Robinson, Bill, "Summerton Says Goodbye to Woman of Special
Courage." The State (September 27, 1998), A1, 11.
Woods, Barbara A. "Modjeska Simpkins and the South Carolina Conference on the NAACP,
1939-1957." In Darlene Clark Hine (ed.), Women In the Civil
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Robert E. Botsch, Professor of
Political Science, USC Aiken, firstname.lastname@example.org
Updates on 8/16/99, 4/3/2009,
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