Briggs V. Elliott Revisited: A Study in Grassroots Activism and Trial Advocacy from the Early Civil Rights Era

By Kolb, Wade | The Journal of Southern Legal History, January 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

Briggs V. Elliott Revisited: A Study in Grassroots Activism and Trial Advocacy from the Early Civil Rights Era


Kolb, Wade, The Journal of Southern Legal History


I. A Visit to Clarendon County, South Carolina - 1947

"We ain't got no money to buy a bus for your nigger children.'" Such was the reply in 1947 of R.W. Elliott, a local school board chairman in Clarendon County, South Carolina, to a group of black parents who had sent him a petition to provide bus transportation for their children. These parents knew that some thirty buses carried the county's white children to school each morning, and perhaps they also knew something of the legal doctrine of "separate but equal," which had been established in Plessy v. Fnguson2 and supposedly governed the distribution of educational funds in South Carolina. Far more real to them, however, than a largely ignored legal doctrine would have been the daily realities of economic hardship, racism, and limited opportunity. So the parents who went to beg R.W. Elliott for a bus could probably have guessed what his reply would be, but their situation was extreme. Perhaps they hoped for some charity from the sawmill operator. Indeed, these were parents who lived in the Davis Station area of Clarendon District 26, and their highschool-aged children had to walk nearly nine miles to get to Scott's Branch School each morning. Moreover, when the children did arrive, the building they entered was primitive. There was no running water or indoor plumbing. Wood stoves provided heat, and kerosene lamps were used for lighting.1

Undeterred by the attitudes and circumstances that confronted them, the black families of Davis Station had initially raised the money for a bus themselves, acquiring one in 1945 that had been junked by the white schools and was being used to store hay. When it broke down, the school district refused to pay for repairs. The parents purchased another, and still the district refused to pay for gasoline or a driver.4 Faced with unreliable transportation and a long walk to school, many black children tried to catch the occasional ride on the back of a neighbor's wagon or truck. Others would board with extended family members who lived nearer to school, and some simply dropped out altogether.5

The work of the Davis Station parents to secure adequate transportation was given added impetus when a young man drowned while he was playing on a boat just outside Society Hill A.M.E. Church during an afternoon program in 1947. Though the accident occurred on a Sunday afternoon and the boy was neither a native of the area nor trying to get to school, local children did use the same boat as they came and went to school each day across an arm of the newly created Lake Marion.6 Among those who ran from the church in the aftermath of this tragedy was the church's pastor, the Reverend Joseph Armstrong ("J.A.") De Laine.7 Long a witness to the struggles of the local black community, J.A. De Laine would become its leading organizer and champion in the late 1940s and early 1950s. His efforts, perhaps more than those of any other person, led to Briggs v. Elliott? a case whose name is sadly overshadowed and forgotten beside Brown v. Board of Education? its sister case on appeal. Nevertheless, were it not for the strategic efforts of the United States Supreme Court to choose a title case from outside the Deep South, the landmark case that ended segregation in the public schools would today be known as Briggs v. Elliott.10 And one recent historian has suggested it would be more accurate still to call the case something like "De Laine ?. Clarendon County" in honor of the man who gave and suffered so much to bring it to trial."

As a native of the area, J.A. De Laine knew Clarendon County well. He had been born near the county seat of Manning, but his work had taken him towards the southern end of the county and the town of Summerton, so-named by the planters who came to this "Summer Town" each year to escape the heat and mosquitoes of the South Carolina Lowcountry. Since the turn of the century, Clarendon's population had * remained relatively static at 32,000. …

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