The U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlawed segregation in public schools resonated across South Carolina on May 17, 1954, with a volatile mix of alarm, cautious optimism and outright defiance.
“Perhaps not since the sneak attack by the Japs on Pearl Harbor has any happening so rocked the capital,” The State newspaper’s R.E. Grier wrote in his column “Around the State House” the day after the ruling. In Columbia, he said, the decision “was talked about in the streets, in the stores, in corridors of office buildings, in hotel lobbies, in lunch rooms and cafeterias – indeed just about everywhere.”
Gov. James F. Byrnes, a former high court justice, expressed shock, saying he could not believe the court would overturn the long-held doctrine, established in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case, that separate facilities for blacks and whites were constitutional as long as facilities were equal.
South Carolina’s black citizens, many of them intimately involved with the fight for equal pay and equal facilities from the 1940s onward, particularly in Clarendon County, embraced the unanimous decision known as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. They knew, perhaps more than their fellow white citizens, the full measure of sacrifice in bringing the case to justice.
Never miss a local story.
“Christianity and democracy have been given a great place in America through the elimination of segregation in public schools,” said NAACP state president James Hinton, “and communism has lost a talking point.”
But the legacy of the 60-year-old decision is mixed, many say, and its work in some ways in South Carolina remains incomplete.
South Carolina’s historic role
Sixty years after Brown, South Carolina can lay claim to a historic role in the fight to end segregation in the public schools.
A cause that began in the rural outpost of Clarendon County turned into a celebrated South Carolina legal case, Briggs v. Elliott, which in turn was consolidated with four other similar cases to form the heart of Brown v. Board of Education.
The Brown decision is one of three or four landmark decisions of the court, USC law school professor Derek Black said Friday.
But Black and other scholars across the country suggest Chief Justice Earl Warren and his fellow justices would be aghast at the dilution of the ruling through the years and the re-segregation of schools today, not only along racial but economic lines.
“The court was adamant about eliminating the vestiges of discrimination,” Black said. “And when they (the justices) said that, they wanted schools to be roughly racially balanced.”
But a combination of factors contributed to a diminishing of the vision of the Warren Court, including public foot-dragging, subsequent court decisions, and the court’s own view that localities should control school decisions.
Today, it is not just about the black-white divide, since Latinos now make up the fastest-growing minority in public education. Questions loom large about financial inequities, with suburban, middle-class schools offering far more opportunities than those offered in schools in poor communities.
And, 60 years after Brown, South Carolina’s five justices are still wrestling with a 20-year-old case, Abbeville v. South Carolina, brought in 1993 by superintendents in some of the state’s poorest localities, including Clarendon County.
The lawsuit asks the question of what constitutes a “minimally-adequate education” as defined by the state constitution, a question that is rooted in South Carolina’s tortured history regarding race and the intellectual enlightenment of its youth.
“Would the Warren Court be happy with what we have now? No,” Black said.
A bus brings a battle for integration
The fight began in Clarendon County in 1947 with a simple request for a bus to carry black children to school.
The state did not have the temerity to suggest schools were equal. Most of Clarendon County’s 2,700 black children walked miles to dilapidated, poorly equipped schools – if they went to school at all – and gathered wood to keep the buildings warm.
School District 22 chairman R.M. Elliott turned down the bus request, suggesting that blacks did not pay enough taxes to warrant the expense. That action was the spur that the NAACP needed. A courageous African Methodist Episcopal minister, the Rev. Joseph A. DeLaine, encouraged his parishioners to rebel against a system that kept blacks impoverished and uneducated.
After suffering one court setback, Harry and Eliza Briggs and 20 other mostly poor rural farmers and hourly workers signed a legal petition and agreed to go the distance on a case that became known as Briggs v. Elliott.
NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall, who would go on to sit on the nation’s high court himself, and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund argued the Briggs case, one of many percolating around the country and probably the most racially egregious for the historic inequities it revealed.
Nevertheless, in 1951, a three-judge federal panel upheld the separate but equal school system, although South Carolina began to scramble to remedy inequities with an infusion of construction to bring black schools up to par with white facilities. The lone dissenting judge, J. Waties Waring of Charleston, wrote a powerful rebuttal that would eventually be woven into the foundation of Brown.
“The courts of this land have stricken down discrimination in higher education and have declared unequivocally that segregation is not equality. But these decisions have pruned away only the noxious fruits. Here in this case, we are asked to strike its very root. Or rather, to change the metaphor, we are asked to strike at the cause of infection and not merely at the symptoms of disease,” Waring wrote.
“And if the courts of this land are to render justice under the laws without fear or favor, justice for all men and all kinds of men, the time to do it is now and the place is in the elementary schools where our future citizens learn their first lesson to respect the dignity of the individual in a democracy.”
Paying the price for courage
Eventually, the nation’s high court would consolidate the Briggs case with cases from Virginia, the District of Columbia, Delaware and Kansas.
S.C. white residents retaliated immediately after the petition circulated through the hamlet of Summerton.
Harry Briggs was fired from his job at a service station; Eliza Briggs lost her job at the Summerton motel. Delaine, his wife and other relatives lost their teaching posts. Others were told they would lose their livelihoods if they didn’t take their names off the petition. Some who sharecropped were told to vacate the land on which they lived. The cotton gin owners refused to gin cotton of those who dared to challenge the system.
DeLaine was exposed to death threats, and his home was burned in Summerton. When he was moved by his bishop to another church in Lake City, white supremacists burned his church and fired shots into his home. He fired back and fled the state, never to return.
“He never regretted the stand that he took at all,” his son, Joseph Delaine Jr., 80, said last week, even though the state declared his father a fugitive from justice and he was never able to live in his native Clarendon County again. The elder DeLaine remained a pastor in New York, founding the DeLaine Waring AME Church, and died in Charlotte in 1974.
Many whites, frightened by the prospect of “race mixing” and the end of what many called “the southern way of life” tried to stave off the Brown decision as long as possible. White Citizens Councils worked to combat the changing tide and, across the state, hundreds of white “segregation academies” sprang up.
It would take another 17 years before South Carolina fully compiled with the Supreme Court decision, in part because of the high court’s decision to allow local authorities the responsibility of implementing the decision. And many decades would pass before the full story of Clarendon County’s legal battle would emerge.
In some respects, the banner headline across The State’s front page on May 18, 1954, encapsulated the struggle that was to come, and still remains: “Supreme Court Outlaws School Segregation; Long Delay Seen Before Decision in Effect.”