This year marks the 60th anniversary of a landmark legal decision that forever shaped the landscape of public education in the United States.
On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas that racial desegregation was illegal in all public schools.
The Brown decision overturned the doctrine of “separate but equal” which, premised on the Supreme Court’s 1896 ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, had heretofore held sway in public schools across the country.
Little known, but inherently important, is the role that South Carolina played in ultimately outlawing racial segregation in public schools.
It all started in 1947 in Clarendon County over the use of a single bus.
At the time, not only were the separate facilities for white and African American students grossly unequal, so, too, were ancillary facilities, in this case, transportation to and from school.
The white schools in Clarendon County had 33 well-maintained buses at their disposal; the African American schools had none.
Appalled that young African American students were essentially forced to walk to school each day, Harry and Eliza Briggs joined a collection of other Clarendon County residents and appealed to R. M. Elliott, the local school superintendent, for a single bus to use.
Their petition was denied on the grounds that African American families did not pay enough taxes to warrant a bus and that asking white taxpayers to foot the bill would cause an undue and unfair burden.
In 1949, with the assistance of the NAACP, a petition was filed that would address the transportation disparity in Clarendon County by challenging the “separate but equal” doctrine of Plessy. Simply, the schools in Clarendon County were separate, yes, but were assuredly unequal.
Under the initial guidance of local school principal Reverend Joseph DeLaine, a petition was circulated articulating the educational disparities in Clarendon County and advocating for fair and just change.
In all, some 100 families signed. Harry and Eliza Briggs would serve as the plaintiffs. Elliott was named as the defendant.
Retribution was swift. Not only was DeLaine hastily fired, but his wife and all other signers affiliated with educational services in Clarendon County were as well. Harry Briggs lost his job as a service station attendant.
Undaunted, Thurgood Marshall, lead council for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, filed Briggs v. Elliott in the fall of 1950.
The case first went to the U.S. District Court, which denied the plaintiffs’ request to abolish segregation.
Instead of mandating the desegregation of public schools in Clarendon County, they ordered the local school board to begin “equalization.”
In 1952, the Supreme Court heard the case and argued that “equalization” of public education facilities in Clarendon County was in fact taking place.
Thurgood Marshall conceded that a measure of educational “equality” may now exist in Clarendon County, yet the real issue remained unchanged – as long as schools were separate they would be unequal.
Bundled together with similar cases advocating for the desegregation of public schools, commonly referred to as the umbrella case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Kansas, Briggs v. Elliott and the African American community in Clarendon County would alter the philosophical and practical underpinnings of educational opportunity, not just in South Carolina, but throughout the United States as well.
Tim Lintner is Professor of Social Studies Education in the School of Education at the University of South Carolina Aiken.