Dawn of Desegregation: J. A. De Laine and Briggs v. Elliott

Dawn of Desegregation: J. A. De Laine and Briggs v. Elliott

Dawn of Desegregation: J. A. De Laine and Briggs v. Elliott

Dawn of Desegregation: J. A. De Laine and Briggs v. Elliott


At the forefront of a new era in American history, Briggs v. Elliott was one of the first five school segregation lawsuits argued consecutively before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1952. The resulting collective 1954 landmark decision, known as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, struck down legalized segregation in American public schools. The genesis of Briggs was in 1947, when the black community of Clarendon County, South Carolina, took action against the abysmally poor educational services provided for their children. In a move that would define him as an early--although unsung--champion for civil rights justice, Joseph A. De Laine, a pastor and school principal, led his neighbors to challenge South Carolina's "separate but equal" practice of racial segregation in public schools. Their lawsuit, Briggs, provided the impetus that led to Brown.In this engrossing memoir, Ophelia De Laine Gona, the daughter of Reverend De Laine, becomes the first to cite and credit adequately the forces responsible for filing Briggs. Based on De Laine's writings and papers, witness testimonies, and the author's personal knowledge, Gona's account fills a gap in civil rights history by providing a poignant insider's view of the events and personalities--including NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall and federal district judge J. Waties Waring--central to this trailblazing case. Though De Laine and the brave parents who filed Briggs v. Elliott initially lost their lawsuit in district court, the case grew in significance when the plaintiffs appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. Three years after the appeal, the Briggs case was one of the five lawsuits that shared the historic Brown decision. However, the ruling did not prevent De Laine and his family from suffering vicious reprisals from vindictive white citizens. In 1955, after he was shot at and his church was burned to the ground, De Laine prudently fled South Carolina in order to save his life. He died in exile in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1974. Fifty years after the Supreme Court's decision, De Laine was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in recognition of his role in reshaping the American civil rights landscape. Those interested in justice, human rights, and leadership, as well as in the civil rights movement and South Carolina social history, will be fascinated by this inspiring tale of how one man's unassailable moral character, raw courage, and steely fortitude inspired a group of humble people to become instruments of change and set in motion a corrective force that revolutionized the laws and social practices of a nation.


A powerful corrective force
came out of Clarendon.

As the United States of America approached the fiftieth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s momentous 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (Brown) decision, my brothers—Joseph A. De Laine, Jr., and Brumit B. De Laine—and I were troubled. We knew that, of the five different legal cases that shaped that historic decision, Briggs et al. v. Elliott et al. (Briggs) was the seminal one. The first of the Brown cases to arrive at the Supreme Court, Briggs came out of poor, rural Clarendon County, South Carolina. Even before it was argued in the courts, Briggs had already caused a major revolution in South Carolina’s education system. As the case that changed the NAACP’s approach to fighting segregation, as the case responsible for others being heard at the same time, as one of the Brown cases, and as the one that provided the most damning evidence of the ills of segregation, Briggs had a key role in ending public school segregation and in laying the groundwork for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Yet, despite the fact that Briggs changed the course of human events, its key role in shaping the nation’s future had been largely overlooked. My brothers and I were mindful of this because we were aware of the leadership role our father, the late Rev. Joseph Armstrong “J. A.” De Laine, had assumed in Briggs, the case that signaled the dawn of desegregation.

The twenty Briggs plaintiffs did not spontaneously decide to sue for the end of public school segregation. Instead Briggs was the outcome of a long, arduous struggle for justice, a crusade fraught with perils and retaliation. Before Briggs got to the courts, many people had lost their jobs and their homes, or had their lives threatened. And for more than a decade subsequently, danger and reprisals continually plagued the plaintiffs, their leaders, and their supporters.

On the eve of the anniversary of the Brown decision, my brothers and I worried that the names and struggles of the Briggs heroes would soon be lost to memory.

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