14 May 2021
This week we return with a new format, let us know what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This Week’s History:
Sunday, 16 May marks the seventieth anniversary of opening arguments in Briggs v Elliott, a school desegregation case filed against the school board of Clarendon County, SC. The initial complaint was over the county’s refusal to provide buses for African American children as they did for white children, but it emerged as the first suit in the twentieth century to challenge the constitutionality of school segregation itself due to the school board’s intransigence. Named for the first of twenty plaintiffs to sign on, Henry Briggs, they lost the suit at the District Court level, though the judges did order the board to begin focusing more on the equal rather than solely on the separate part of the 1896 Plessy ruling.
Many of those involved in the suit as either plaintiffs or supporters faced extreme retribution for taking part. Briggs was fired from his job, as were several others. Rev. J A DeLaine, who had played a key role in gathering plaintiffs and securing NAACP support, was the target of an assassination attempt before his home was firebombed and he had to flee the state. Federal Judge Walter Waring, who had written a dissenting opinion that called for desegregation was censured by the South Carolina House of Representatives and had to flee the state as well. Others were forced off their leases as sharecroppers or tenant farmers; those who had their own land saw mortgages and other loans suddenly called due and lost everything. Another local resident, James McKnight, was beaten to death on the side of the road after being mistaken for a plaintiff.
In spite of the danger, the plaintiffs agreed to appeal the decision to the US Supreme Court. It was the first of five cases that were subsequently bundled together to challenge public school segregation. Today, that case is known as Brown v Board of Education.
References and Further Reading:
Brinson, Claudia Smith. Stories of Struggle: The Clash over Civil Rights in South Carolina. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2020.
Brown Foundation: https://brownvboard.org/content/brown-case-briggs-v-elliott
DeLaine, Brumit B. and Ophelia DeLaine Gona. Briggs v Elliott: Clarendon County's Quest for Equality; A Brief History. Pine Brook, NJ: O. Gona, 2002.
DuBose, Sonny. The Road to Brown: The Leadership of a Soldier of the Cross, Reverend J A DeLaine. Orangeburg, SC: Williams, 2002.
National Park Service: https://www.nps.gov/brvb/learn/historyculture/socarolina.htm
PBS American Experience: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/blinding-isaac-woodard-briggs-v-elliott/
South Carolina Encyclopedia: https://www.scencyclopedia.org/sce/entries/briggs-v-elliott/
Southern History and Civil Rights in the News Links:
“The ‘Mississippi Plan’ to Keep Blacks from Voting in 1890” The Washington Post
“Why Confederate Lies Live On” The Atlantic
“This Yacht Trafficked Enslaved Africans Long After the Slave Trade Was Abolished” Smithsonian Magazine
Until next week, take care,
Michele “Scout” Johnson
This series of weekly posts to H-South, “Southern History and Civil Rights in the News,” aims to generate and track informed public discussions of southern history and civil rights. To recommend a reading, please email Dr. Michele Johnson at email@example.com