Briggs v. R.W. Elliott
The legal action in Summerton, South Carolina began in 1947. Ironically the push to take action derived from a fortuitous encounter between Rev. James Hinton, president of the South Carolina NAACP and Rev. J.A. DeLaine a local school teacher. The NAACP leader, through a speech attended by DeLaine, issued a challenge to find the courage to test the legality of the discriminatory practices aimed at African American school children.
Rev. J. A. DeLaine was teaching in St. Paul Rural Primary School and also serving several small churches as an A.M.E. Minister. (Initially schools for African Americans in Clarendon County began in their churches and gradually moved to separate buildings. Therefore, many schools and churches had the same names such as Liberty Hill A.M.E. and Liberty Hill Elementary.) For these children and their parents the issue was bus-transportation to school. Rev. DeLaine approached Clarendon County school officials but failed to secure school buses. African American children did not have buses, they had to walk, sometimes as far as eight miles each way to school.
School officials justified their refusal by claiming that since the African American community did not pay (collectively) much in taxes it would be unfair to expect white citizens to provide transportation for African American school children. Even a letter writing campaign launched by Rev. DeLaine yielded no assistance from state educational officials. Because of the urgent need African American parents collected donations within their community and purchased a second-hand school bus. The continual repairs on the bus proved to be too costly for the parents.
Again frustration prompted Rev. DeLaine to seek relief from the District Superintendent L.B. McCord. It was hoped that since McCord was a fellow minister he would be sympathetic. However, he refused to even consider Rev. DeLaine's request. Remembering the words of Rev. Hinton, the NAACP state president, DeLaine knew it was time to take legal action.
On March 16, 1948 local attorney Harold Boulware together with Thurgood Marshall, filed in U.S. District Court the case of Levi Pearson v. County Board of Education. Their case was dismissed on the technical matter of where Mr. Pearson paid his taxes. His land straddled more than one school district. The court ruled that Pearson had no legal standing because he paid taxes in District 5 and his children attended school in districts 22 and 26.
This did not stop Rev. DeLaine and by 1949 he had obtained enough signatures to file a second case. The national office of the NAACP agreed to sponsor their case. It would give Clarendon's African Americans not just buses but would seek educational equality. In May of 1950 with the help of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the case of Briggs v. Elliott was filed. Two months later, the plaintiffs attorneys moved from simply pursuing equalization of facilities and obtaining buses, to attacking segregation.
The court ruled against the petitioners and ordered schools to be equalized, focusing on equalization and ignoring the broader question of the constitutionality of segregation. The states action resulted in an NAACP appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Briggs case became part of the Brown litigation.
The Briggs case evoked an extreme reaction. All of the petitioners suffered swift and severe hardships for their courage. Harry Briggs was fired from his job. Annie Gibson lost her job as a motel maid and her husband lost land that had been in his family for eight decades. Rev. DeLaine saw his home burned to the ground. Federal Judge Walter Waring, who sided with the petitioners concerns, was forced to leave the state by a joint resolution of the South Carolina House of Representatives.