State 125

The SC roots of school desegregation

Briggs v. Elliott plaintiffs and supporters.
Briggs v. Elliott plaintiffs and supporters. Provided photo

The fight to end school segregation had some genesis in South Carolina.

Before Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court case that led to integration, there was Briggs v. Elliott.

The landmark S.C. school-segregation case started in rural Clarendon County, when the school district chairman, R.M. Elliott, rejected a request for a school bus to carry black children to their schools.

Elliott argued that blacks did not pay enough taxes to cover the expense.

Harry and Eliza Briggs, and 20 other mostly poor rural farmers and workers, signed a petition that launched a court battle – not just for a bus, but for equity in schools.

NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall and the civil-rights organization’s Legal Defense Fund argued the Briggs case, which was not immediately successful.

Threatened to abandon the case, the petitioners lost their jobs. In 1951, a three-judge federal panel upheld the separate-but-equal school system.

But payoff came later when Briggs v. Elliott was combined with four similar cases to become the foundation of Brown v. Board of Education – the case the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on to declare segregated schools unconstitutional.

About this series: The inaugural edition of The State newspaper was published Feb. 18, 1891. In anticipation of the 125th anniversary, the Palmetto section and this section at are recounting each day how The State covered newsmakers and events vital to South Carolina’s history.