Blogs > Cliopatria > Why Wasn't It Brown vs. Alabama or Brown vs. South Carolina?

Apr 29, 2004 9:01 pm

Why Wasn't It Brown vs. Alabama or Brown vs. South Carolina?

Drew Jubera, in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (April 25, 2004):

In the 1940s, the white kids of Clarendon County [South Carolina] had 30 school buses, the black parents wanted one. Fed up with their kids having to walk up to nine miles each way between Davis Station and the black school in Summerton, they went to the school board for help.

When the school district rejected their bus request, the black parents bought their own junked vehicle. Unable to afford the upkeep, they again asked for help. Roderick Elliott, the district chairman, responded with his trademark twinning of double negatives and racial epithets:"We ain't got no money for no nigger children."

And that's how the new world began. A resolute black minister named Joseph Armstrong"J.A." De Laine convinced an uneducated farmer named Levi Pearson to sue the Clarendon County school district for buses. Filed in 1947 and dismissed on a technicality, that suit set off an improbable chain of events leading to Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that, 50 years ago next month, ruled segregated schools unconstitutional and jump-started the modern civil rights movement.

"We would not be celebrating Brown today without the heroism of these people," said historian Vernon Burton of the Clarendon County case, dubbed Briggs v. Elliott, after the Summerton gas station attendant whose name headed the plaintiffs' petition and the recalcitrant school district chairman.

"In the most unlikeliest of places, people stood up and changed America," Burton added."It's an amazing story. And we don't even know about it."

Indeed, Briggs v. Elliott is one of the movement's most profound, if least recognized, stories. It was the first of five desegregation cases to arrive at the Supreme Court and be bundled into Brown. But its grass-roots, middle-of-nowhere dramatics have been obscured by the Kansas case, which spotlighted a bright-eyed fifth-grader named Linda Brown, who gave the decision its name.

Justice Tom Clark later said Brown replaced Briggs at the top of the docket because the Court preferred the title come from a border state"so that the whole question [of segregation] would not smack of being purely a Southern one."

Even in South Carolina, where Briggs v. Elliott played out amid much hoopla in Charleston's federal District Court --- the lone judge to side with the black plaintiffs, an eighth-generation blue blood, was run out of the state --- the case now is remembered mostly by historians, lawyers and descendants of those involved. (All the principal participants have died.)

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