Clarendon County in 1950 was a flat, dusty throwback to Yesterday's South, a sprawling rural patchwork of cotton-fields and piney woods in the Carolina low country southeast of Columbia and north of Charleston. The population of 32,000 was almost three-fourths black; in the public schools, the ratio was higher still. There were only two towns of any size--Manning, the county seat, and Summerton. Most of the blacks and a good many of the whites were poor farmers who worked the land for the tiny white ruling class or served them in other capacities. Over two-thirds of the households in the county earned less than a thousand dollars in 1950.
Two-thirds of the county school budget was allocated to the schools that served white children, even thought they made up just thirteen percent of the total enrollment. The whites were clustered in a dozen school buildings that bore no resemblance to the sixty ramshackle buildings, most of them one-or two-room structures, into which scores or hundreds of black children were crowded. The whites had buses, too, about thirty in all; the blacks walked, some more than five miles each way.
J. A. DeLaine was one of a handful of black citizens in the Summerton area who decided in the summer of 1947 that it would help a lot if the school board would provide them with a bus. They asked the board chairman, R. W. Elliott, a sawmill operator. His reply, later quoted by one of the men who went to see him, was "We ain't got no money to buy a bus for your nigger children." They asked the superintendent, L. B. McCord, a Presbyterian minister. His answer was a bit more polite, but just as unavailing. They wrote to the state superintendent of education and the U.S. Attorney General--and again, they got nowhere. Finally the black parents scraped up enough money to buy an old heap of a worn-out bus, but it broke down a lot, and the school board wouldn't even agree to put gas in it.
All of this deeply troubled J. A. DeLaine, a college-educated minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church who served as pastor of two congregations and taught school during the week. He was almost fifty years old, and not at all eager to risk his teaching job or his health in a confrontation with the white authorities. But in Columbia that summer, he heard a speech by the Reverend James M. Hinton, president of the South Carolina NAACP, that seemed almost like a call from on high. Hinton was talking about racial discrimination in the public schools, and he specifically cited the lack of buses for black children The NAACP needed some brave plaintiffs to attack these problems with them, he said. DeLaine took it upon himself to find such a person. He got Levi Pearson, a farmer in one of his churches, to sign a formal request for a bus. The white school officials ignored it. Then, in March 1948, the NAACP attorney in Columbia, Harold Boulware, filed a complaint in federal court in Pearson's name. The case was dismissed on a technicality. Soon thereafter, Pearson found that the white moneylenders and storekeepers in Clarendon County had cut off his credit.
A year went by. In the spring of 1949, DeLaine and Pearson met again with NAACP officials in Columbia, and this time Thurgood Marshall was there. He told them they had a good case, but they needed several plaintiffs, not just one, and they would have to stick together and stay the course. Back home, about three hundred frustrated but determined blacks had a meeting. They promised Joseph DeLaine that if he would lead them, they would follow. Putting aside his reluctance and hesitation, he finally accepted their call.
It cost him his teaching job quickly, but he knew that was coming. Then the school officials tried to lure him back and stop the legal wheels from turning, but it was too late for that. By November, DeLaine had secured the names of twenty people willing to sign on as plaintiffs in a new lawsuit. First among them, alphabetically, was Harry Briggs, a thirty-four-year-old navy veteran and father of four who worked at a filling station in Summerton. His name and that of the school board chairman would be paired in the title. The suit was filed later that month in the federal district court in Charleston--Judge J. Waties Waring's court. A year later, on November 17, 1950, Thurgood Marshall went before Judge Waring for a pretrial hearing. Three and a half years after R. W. Elliott first denied them a bus, the black petitioners of Clarendon County were about to get their day in court. It would be another three and a half years before justice was done in Briggs v. Elliott.
- John Egerton, Speak Now Against The Day: The Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement in the South, Alfred A. Knopf, 1994, pp. 589-591.
Publisher: Random House Publishing