Harry Briggs Jr. (far right) with classmates. ©NAACP LDF.
On August 9, 2016, Harry Briggs Jr. passed away at his home in the Bronx, New York. In 1947, at the age of 12, Briggs Jr. was the first to sign a petition in Clarendon County, South Carolina demanding equal access in education for black students. The court case that followed that petition, Briggs v. Elliot, was one of five consolidated cases in Brown v. Board of Education. Although Brown became the recognizable name in ruling “separate but equal” education unconstitutional, Briggs was the first of the five cases to challenge racial segregation, and its plaintiffs suffered mightily for it.
In 1947, three of every four black South Carolinians were unable to attend elementary school; the ratio was often exacerbated in poor rural communities like Clarendon County. Historian Richard Kluger later described Clarendon County as “[t]he place in America in the year 1947 where life among black folk had changed the least since the end of slavery.” Under Jim Crow, this meant severe retaliation for anyone who supported the fight for integrated public schools. Both of Briggs Jr.’s parents were fired from their jobs and the family fled to New York after being forced out of town by whites. Co-plaintiff Joseph De Laine was similarly exiled when a warrant for his arrest was issued for returning a single gunshot—in defense of himself and family—at a car full of men that opened fire on his house in the middle of the night. Although a warrant was issued for the men responsible for the attempted murder of the De Laine family, the warrant was never pursued. Amidst continued death threats, De Laine’s house was eventually burned to the ground.
Thurgood Marshall (right) argued before the Supreme Court on behalf of the plaintiffs in Briggs, while John W. Davis (left) argued on behalf of the defendant school district. ©NAACP LDF.
Although the Supreme Court unanimously declared legally-sanctioned school segregation unconstitutional in Brown, years of resistance to the Court’s ruling meant that Harry Briggs Jr. and countless others were never able to attend integrated schools. In 1965, Clarendon County shut down its public schools to avoid the implementation of Brown. It would not be until the 1970s that all public schools in South Carolina were forced to desegregate. Today, 61.0% percent of students in Clarendon County are black. However, two of the county’s three school districts are still segregated. District 01, the smallest of the Clarendon’s districts, is 92.9% black and only 3.8% white, whereas District 02 is 66.4% white.
In 2002, Harry Briggs Jr. points to his father in a group photograph from 1949. Photograph by Lou Krasky/Associated Press.
In 2014, Briggs Jr. met with President Obama to discuss the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. When asked how he felt after the decision in Brown finally came down, Briggs Jr. exclaimed, “Oh, I fe[lt] great as hell.” Harry Briggs Jr.’s courage and efforts sixty-five years ago still serve as a reminder of the continuing struggle for equal access to quality education.
This blog post was authored by UNC Center for Civil Rights summer intern Martin Maloney.
Posted by Brent J. Ducharme on Mon. August 22, 2016 2:16 PM