The fiftieth anniversary celebration of Brown v. Board of Education leads uncomfortably to a South Carolina country town named Summerton. With a population of barely one thousand, Summerton seems too culturally unimpressive a place to have ever participated in a great historical moment. It not only lacks a college, it lacks a public library. The wide trailer homes, the tin roof houses, and the empty tracts of land indicate a lack of new construction. Just as a nodding head, sagging shoulders, and lifeless eyes are reliable signs of depression, so the faded façades and closed storefronts along Summerton's main street signal economic gloom. A small town slumps along with a case of the blues.
There are no literal railroad tracks. If there were, the insultingly abrupt transition would suggest "the other side of the tracks." This is where the "Negroes" lived in books like Lillian Smith's Strange Fruit. As a white Southerner, this is where you would have driven in the 1950s to pick up the family maid. As a black man or woman you would have lived here-not by choice, rather, by law and legally enforced tradition. In a town this small, the social lines stand in stark relief. It is in fact difficult to write about Summerton as it exists today without feeling that one is exploiting stereotypes. Two thousand four cannot be 1954. I'm embarrassed to imply that it is. But the social vision rises before one's eyes.
As the past mirrors the present, so too the Clarendon County school system then and now. Blacks attend the public schools; most whites attend private academies. Clarendon County school districts 1, 2, and 3 are involved in a lawsuit alongside thirty-three other South Carolina school districts, Abbeville v. State of South Carolina, suing the state for failing to meet the barest educational needs of its citizens. Testimony regarding education within the thirty-six rural school districts has described woefully inadequate facilities, untrained teachers, and classrooms without books. Lawyers are attempting to shame South Carolina into taking action against conditions that resemble third world educational deprivation. Though the focus of the case is poverty, not race, the conditions have a particularly strong impact on African American students (as they did in 1954). Eight school districts are serving as representative districts in the case, and those eight are 88 percent minority (the state average is 48 percent).
This is what happened: a group of blacks living in or near Summerton filed suit against the local school board. Their bone of contention was the board's failure to provide basic, much less equal facilities. Begun as a lawsuit over equal opportunity, Briggs was expanded into a challenge to the constitutionality of segregation itself-the first challenge against the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling. Fifty years ago, Briggs was argued jointly with four other lawsuits calling for the desegregation of public schools before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Students from Summerton pass a school bus in the 1940s. More than 20 families from the area joined together in 1947 to request adequate transportation for their students, and they filed suit with local courts when refused. That case, Briggs v. Elliott, ultimately was joined with several others to form the groundbreaking Brown v. Board of Education that ended state-sponsored segregation of the schools in the United States. Schools in South Carolina finally did away with complete segregation.
Briggs v. Elliott was the upshot of a social uprising in the most unlikely of times and places -a backward South Carolina county in the late 1940s. Briggs, like Brown, has its roots in dissatisfaction. But dissatisfaction can remain sprawled, diffuse, lacking a consistent impetus or direction. How it was turned into decisive social action in Clarendon County is a complicated story, but it has its luminaries. It has, in particular, a lodestar: Joseph Albert DeLaine, a Methodist minister in the Summerton area.
In the late 1940s, the bulk of the black population of Clarendon County subsisted either as tenant farmers or sharecroppers. Sharecropper. The very word carries associations from books and movies that suggest the harshness of a way of life. Economic conditions were hard for whites, and harder for blacks. Sharecroppers slept on straw cots, their income was seasonal, they were always in debt to the landowners. Many suspected that the landowners' books were fixed, and many of them were probably right, but few could argue the point. The general level of mathematical knowledge or simple literacy was low.
Of the enemies of progress-poverty, segregation, and a general lack of education-the black community was most likely to succeed in redressing the last. Education was held in high regard by sharecroppers, who saw immediate gain in the ability to do figures and challenge fraudulent debts. Self-sufficient solutions preceded any effort at legal redress. In the mid-1940s, Negro parents in the Summerton area pooled their funds to buy a school bus.
Harry and Eliza Briggs were one of 21 initial families who became part of the Briggs v. Elliott case, which ultimately joined with other cases to form Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, whose Supreme Court decision in 1954 claimed that "separate, but equal" schools were unconstitutional
The decision was made to proceed with a legal resolution. Given the authoritarian segregation of Clarendon County, this was an immense leap of faith and determination. Several elements fused to bring the community to this point. The local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had already expressed interest in transportation issues. Specifically, NAACP spokesperson James Hinton had delivered a speech at Allen University in Columbia, South Carolina, daring his audience to challenge South Carolina's preposterously lopsided busing practices. The community was encouraged by the support of a white man of influence, Judge J. Waites Waring of Charleston, S.C. Waring had alienated himself from Charleston's white community-and become the friend of South Carolina's black community-by ruling with the NAACP and forcing the Democratic Party to allow blacks to vote in primary elections. He had also taken a public and vocal stance against Jim Crow laws generally, a stance that encouraged the general belief in legal solutions.
But it was a local leader, one of the black community's own, J. A. DeLaine, who provided the axis around which action would develop. DeLaine's seventy-year-old son, Joseph DeLaine, Jr. recollects, " I would say there were three people in the community at that time, not only my father, who had the vision and who wanted change. But of the three I would say my father was the most headstrong." A younger son, Brumit DeLaine, remembers that "Dad used to hate for people to say 'God will take care of everything.' He couldn't stand that. He said, 'God gave you a mind to use for you to take care of yourself.'" Finally, Brumit DeLaine warns us not to discount desperation as a motive. "When you think, why Summerton and not someplace else? Think of a coward. Not that I'm calling the people of Summerton cowards. But even a coward if he has his back to the wall to the point that it becomes an issue of basic survival, he'll fight. Because he's got nothing to lose not to fight. He's gon' die anyway. At that time things had gotten so bad that people were willing to try about anything."
The most appropriate image for Briggs v. Elliott is that of a school bus, a simple, basic need unanswered. Ironically, it is a need that, had it been answered, could have forestalled the lawsuit. An initial suit was filed in 1947 (Pearson v. the State of South Carolina, named after Levi Pearson, who served for awhile as the volunteer driver of the late-lamented, broken-down bus). That was a suit over equal access and equal facilities. It was not a challenge to segregation itself; it simply challenged the immense discrepancy between white and black funding for transportation. But, partly because of DeLaine, who had established contact with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and partly because of the arguments of the NAACP attorneys, most notably Thurgood Marshall, it was a daring challenge to the status quo.
Levi Pearson v. the State was dismissed because of a legal technicality that may have been a trick of the powers-that-be. The plaintiff Levi Pearson's home straddled two school districts. He had no rights in the district in which he had filed suit. It was probably expected that this convenient technicality would abrogate the social threat. The powers-that-be underestimated J. A. DeLaine's tenacity.
After the initial setback, Marshall was unenthusiastic about continuing with Clarendon County as a civil rights test case. The place was a backwater, and the case was unlikely to generate widespread public interest or, most important, financial support. The NAACP would have preferred a more visible arena. But black residents of the Summerton area had suffered already for their support of change. DeLaine believed passionately that Marshall was abandoning him and the people of the community in midstream. Poked and prodded by DeLaine, Marshall relented and agreed to continue the case if its perspective was broadened to the entire educational system (not just transportation) and the number of plaintiffs increased to at least twenty. DeLaine organized a series of public meetings in Clarendon County to explain to the community that the suit now demanded full educational equity, that signers were needed among local parents, and that the risk was worth the potential gain. These meetings were a hybrid of political rallies and church revivals. The main speakers were mostly preachers; information was passed out; backbone was strengthened.
One of the signers, Maize Solomon, would later remember that for her putting her name down was a simple matter. "Our children didn't have a bus; they didn't have desks." This simple matter was nonetheless a fearful one. In communities as sharply segregated as Clarendon County, DeLaine's meetings garnered the nervous, watchful attention of whites: this was brazen, illogical defiance. Soon Summerton and the surrounding communities spiraled into chaos. The years 1949-1955 were characterized by racial strife, tension, and mischief. Reality seemed flimsy; certainties were abandoned, and threats were constant. At the same time as the rallies were being held, drumming up support for a lawsuit, students at Scotts Branch, the black high school in Summerton, formed a committee to protest shady practices and racist policies; Scotts Branch had four different principals within one year. DeLaine was threatened, harassed, fired from jobs.
After DeLaine and Marshall visited them at home, Harry and Eliza Briggs became the first signers of Briggs v. Elliott. DeLaine exceeded Marshall's requirement. The suit eventually involved more than one hundred petitioners.
R.M. Elliott was the superintendent of the Summerton School District in 1947 when residents Harry and Eliza Briggs joined 21 other families who petitioned the district for a school bus. Elliott refused to give the black school children in Summerton even one school bus, while white children had more than 30, telling the petitioners that black residents did not pay enough taxes to support the bus. Elliott later balked at paying for gas when the residents were able to acquire their own.
When Briggs v. Elliott convened, the state's attorneys expressed a willingness to equalize resources. A recently enacted 3 percent sales tax was proposed as a source of funds sufficient to equalize public educational facilities. But whether the state would have made a good faith effort to improve facilities or whether these were false promises was by then a moot point. For the NAACP and Thurgood Marshall were no longer interested in equalizing segregated facilities. In the first challenge to legalized segregation, they argued that the status quo was inherently unequal and therefore unconstitutional.
Shortly before the Briggs trial, DeLaine's house in Summerton was firebombed. Fortunately the DeLaine family had already moved miles away to Lake City, South Carolina. Briggs v. Elliott was decided by a panel of three judges. The plaintiffs lost, but they celebrated a dissenting opinion, written by J. Waites Waring. Waring quoted from the fourteenth amendment: "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States," and then added, "It seems to me that it is unnecessary to pore through voluminous arguments and opinions to ascertain what the foregoing means. And while it is true we have had hundreds, perhaps thousands, of legal opinions outlining and defining the various effects and overtones on our laws and life brought about by the adoption of this Amendment, one of ordinary ability and understanding of the English language will have no trouble knowing that when this Amendment was adopted, it was intended to do away with discrimination [and] refers to all persons." Waring's dissent was the basis for the next step, an appeal to the Supreme Court.
When Brown v. Board won the day in 1954, no one was more surprised than the Briggs petitioners that their desperate lawsuit had altered the course of history. DeLaine's career in Clarendon County ended in 1955 when the family house in Lake City was fired upon. DeLaine returned shots; a short gun battle ensued; later he was secretly spirited away. He lived the rest of his life in New York City and Charlotte, N.C. A warrant for his arrest in South Carolina made any public return impossible. In the 1960s, DeLaine thought about turning himself in to the South Carolina police and forcing a trial, but abandoned the idea. DeLaine died in 1974, at age seventy-six.
For a time in the 1950s the ongoing plight of the Briggs petitioners received publicity in black papers such as the Chicago Defender. Relief efforts were organized by local churches, even national organizations. But in the 1960s, although the reprisals against the Briggs signers continued, Clarendon County received no press attention. The protest movement shifted elsewhere, to marches in Alabama, voting registration in Mississippi, riots in the inner cities. Clarendon County whites resisted integration and created private academies that exist today. When the "blacklist" was forgotten, sometime in the late sixties, the county returned to its quiet and unprogressive past. DeLaine was long gone. Energy and impetus were lost. The Summerton of today resembles the Summerton of the sixties or worse, the Summerton of a time before that.
In the late 1940s, Levi Pearson, of Pearson v. the State, volunteered to drive the bus so that local children, among them his own daughter, could attend school. He is described as a man who never learned to read and write, but who regularly had his children read to him from the black press. The same Levi Pearson operated a timber business that was boycotted by whites after the Brown decision. By 1965, he was nearly ruined because trucking companies owned by whites refused to pick up his timber. Harry Briggs was forced to take work outside of Summerton in order to make ends meet. In James T. Patterson' s Brown v. Board, he reports that "when Harry Briggs was asked in 1979 what [the petitioners of Briggs vs Elliott] had accomplished, he replied 'Nothing!' He then reflected a minute and reconsidered, but only slightly. He concluded 'You got to take some pride, it's better.' " As an old man, seeing Clarendon County still stuck in time, perhaps Harry Briggs was saying that more had been accomplished in terms of striking a blow for dignity than for substantive change. It is never the intent of progressives to force a choice between dignity and change. The pity of Summerton-and the irony of too much black history in America-is that this impossible choice is so often imposed.
What can we learn from the story of Briggs v. Elliott? The historical facts are important in themselves, but is there a larger lesson?
There are many possible lessons, many possible interpretations. To begin, there is the negative view: little has been achieved. Economic disenfranchisement continues. The beaten up roads behind the Summerton Piggly Wiggly prove the point. Look how the whites live, then at how the blacks get by. The African American residents of Summerton remain-by the standards of twenty-first century America-marginalized and educationally deprived. Doesn't the present-day lawsuit, Abbeville v. the State, prove that? Worse, black people have exhausted their quotient of national pity and concern for the debatable privilege of attending public schools with whites-who have by and large switched to private schools anyway.
But this is only part of the story. It is impossible to think about Summerton without appreciating the miracle that de jure segregation is over. Whatever its advantages for skillful individuals and black business owners, segregation was about power, a preponderance of power often used insidiously and to force a community into a straitjacket. In 1951, J. A. DeLaine wrote "Is it a credit for Summerton to wear the name of persecuting a segment of its citizens? Shall we suffer endless persecution just because we want our children raised in a wholesome atmosphere? What some of us have suffered is nothing short of Nazi persecution." The Nazi comment was not hyperbolic, for segregation was as much a political as a social arrangement, fascistic by nature.
At the same time, due to the awfulness of segregation, there is a tendency to think of the racial problems of the period as conveniently one-sided. The past was racially essentialist, in contrast to the confusions of today's conflicts. Here, too, Briggs is educative. Is it a tale of the power of religious conviction? Is it a tale of white arrogance and battered black pride? Regarding the first assertion, Brumit DeLaine insists, "Christianity was what we were fighting against." In his experience, Christianity was a primary force for racism. It was their dogged Christianity that provided the white community of Clarendon County with its confidence and self-righteousness. Furthermore, for Brumit DeLaine, the major lesson he took away from the Briggs years was that "You can't judge people by their color, white or black. There were white people who supported us, and black people who we couldn't trust." The man who firebombed the DeLaine residence in 1951 was a black man, supposedly a friend of the family. DeLaine in his sermons at the rallies frequently referred to "Judases" from the black community. From Brumit's perspective, it is important to appreciate the absence of racial absolutes.
Doubtless many people of Clarendon County are unaware of the region's place in history. But the fiftieth anniversary of Brown v. Board is awakening consciousnesses. In Summerton, a Briggs-DeLaine-Pearson association has been formed to recognize the petitioners. In 2003, J. A. DeLaine, Harry and Eliza Briggs, and Levi Pearson were posthumously awarded congressional gold medals.
This leads us to the most important question: what can Briggs v. Elliott teach us about the future? For many, the fiftieth anniversary of Brown v. Board seems an occasion for chagrin and embarrassment as much as celebration. Given the high rates of black imprisonment, of disenfranchisement, the disproportionate percentages of blacks dogged by poverty and poor schools, African American integration into the larger society still seems unfinished business. This shame haunts educators and historians when they discuss a ruling that "ended segregation" in an America that, defying logic, remains in notable respects segregated. Nowhere is this embarrassment felt more palpably than in the courtroom during sessions of Abbeville v. the State. If Brown v. Board was high modernism, Abbeville v. State is a postmodernist redux. It is mere coincidence that Abbeville came to trial in Brown's anniversary year. But everyone in the courtroom is conscious of history.
In his opening statement, plaintiff's lawyer, Stephen Morrison, said "Here we are, fifty years after Brown v. Board, in the very county where Brown was started, still battling for equal education in South Carolina." Abbeville v. State is a difficult case to watch. The plaintiff's witnesses are teachers, social workers, and psychologists, describing substandard conditions, preposterously high dropout and teacher turnover rates, and the debilitating consequences for the students. The state in turn argues that the thirty-six counties in the suit, among them Clarendon County, are overwhelmed by phenomena such as teenage pregnancy and high crimes rates-lamentable facts beyond the grasp of the educational system.
Morrison presents witnesses to testify how poor education contributes to crime and teenage pregnancy. Morrison sees himself on a mission. He is attempting to fulfill the mandate inspired by Brown v. Board: an equal education for all, regardless of poverty or race. He describes the relationship between Abbeville v. State and Brown as follows "Imagine this. If Thurgood could come back to Clarendon County in 2004, and see these African American schools with the worst facilities, and the lowest teacher pay, he'd say, what's happened? Brown has been overturned and the education system is segregated again. We are truly arguing this case for the disenfranchised. I see this trial as a sequel; in this courtroom we're trying the vestiges of Brown v. Board."
Two thousand four cannot be 1950. For Briggs and Brown, sociologist Kenneth Clark testified on the pernicious psychological effects of segregation; whereas for Abbeville, there is educator Joanne Anderson testifying on the psychological needs of children of poverty who often begin grade school knowing thousands fewer words than middle-class children. There is no testimony on the dire effects of race segregation, but there is testimony on the depressive effect of having the children of poverty segregated rather than dispersed among students of higher economic standing. The most telling difference between past and present is that in this "sequel" to Brown v. Board there is a strict limitation on the permissibility of evidence pertinent to race.
And one might ask why should this not be so? Why need there be discussion on race, this peculiarly American chestnut? Isn't it time we got over race? Isn't the point of the trial increased funding for education? To alleviate the effects of poverty? In what way does race matter? On the other hand, the districts represented are overwhelmingly African American. Is this coincidental? What if it could be shown that race is pertinent to their condition, or to its resolution?
Morrison had originally planned to argue his case partially along racial lines. However, the judge, with the encouragement of the state, ruled that, for the purposes of Abbeville v. the State, "race and poverty are co-linear." No race- specific evidence need be introduced (or if introduced, will receive no consideration in the verdict). So Morrison can talk about South Carolina's poor high school graduation rate of 51 percent. He cannot break that figure down by race. He cannot discuss differences in performance along lines of race. He cannot describe the districts he represents as having been in effect resegregated, without drawing an objection from the state.
There are two ways to look at this. The judge's ruling may be influenced by the tenor of the times, the post-civil rights era, where color-blind arguments are more welcome than racialized ones. We have come full circle. Affirmative action-the child of Brown-is under attack. A phenomenon known as "reverse discrimination" has been recognized. Racial equality is with increasing success taken to mean color blindness; racial statistics cannot be used even to correct racial inequities.
There is another view. Whatever his motivation, the judge's ruling may represent a legitimate broadening of social vision. Isn't poverty a wider net than race? Many now say that poverty and economic issues should have played a more important role in earlier civil rights battles. Isn't the judge's decision the beginning of a correction of that mistake?
Morrison suggests, with all respect, that the judge may feel race is simply too controversial to introduce and hope for a constructive outcome. I suggest, with all respect, that, politically speaking, the judge may be right. Morrison shrugs.
There are doubtless many instances in which race and poverty are co-linear. But Morrison speaks from the vantage point of Brown's legacy to remind us there are instances when they may not be and that there are dangers in ignoring those instances, particularly if the motivation is fear. Let race be eliminated from discussion in cases in which it does not matter, but not because it makes us uncomfortable. If the past was never racially essentialist, perhaps neither is equity synonymous with a blind rush toward color blindness.
Readers will now have to look at their own understanding of fairness and equity and ponder the degree to which it signifies a legitimate broadening of our social vision or, conversely, the degree to which it signifies an increase in our willingness to engage in a desperate denial of unpleasant truths-that for the purposes of this sequel to Brown v. the Board, the judge has disallowed a conversation about race.
Darryl Lorenzo Wellington is a poet and essayist living in Charleston, South Carolina. His work has recently appeared in the Boston Review and World and I magazine. (http://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/?article=343)