Briggs v Elliott

Congressional Gold Medal recognizing the contributions of Briggs plaintiffs, leaders and supporters

The historic legal case known as Briggs et al. v. Elliott et al. began as a modest effort to obtain bus transportation for school children. It metamorphosed into a lawsuit to obtain equal educational opportunities. In its final form, it was a lawsuit that sought the desegregation of public schools.

       Filed against local officials by a group of Clarendon County (SC) parents, the petition argued that the separation of races in public schools violated rights guaranteed under the 14th Amendment.

       Briggs was the first of five similar cases to be filed in federal court and, in many ways, the most significant of them.

       The historic and unanimous 1954 Supreme Court decision, which ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, was handed down under the Brown et al. v. Board of Education of Topeka et al. umbrella. The decision declared that legally enforced segregation deprives citizens of “equal protection of the laws” as guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. The decision effectively denied a legal basis for segregation in classrooms throughout the nation and set the stage that demanded greater respect for the civil rights of all persons.

       The name Brown et al. v. Board of Education of Topeka et al. is far better known than the name Briggs et al. v. Elliott et al. However, Briggs was perhaps the most important of the five 1952 cases. One only needs to read the transcripts of the Supreme Court’s decrees to see that Briggs contributed major portions of the supporting arguments. Of great historical significance is the fact that Briggs was the case that changed the NAACP’s strategy of attacking “separate but equal” laws and practices. Furthermore, the Supreme Court’s decisions of 1954 and 1955 appear to have drawn heavily on the dissenting opinion rendered by Judge J. Waties Waring in the 1952 Briggs decision.

       Although Briggs was filed in federal court in May 1950, the movement responsible for the case began several years earlier.

Important Events in the Briggs et al. v. Elliott et al. case:

1947: Levi Pearson, with the encouragement and help of the Reverend J. A. De Laine, filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court against the then Clarendon County School District 22, demanding school bus transportation for African American students. In 1948, the case had to be withdrawn, without being heard, due to a technicality.

March 1949: A group that included De Laine and Pearson prevailed upon Thurgood Marshall and his staff to represent them in a lawsuit for “equalization of educational opportunity” that was called Briggs et al. v. Board of Education et al. More than 100 people (adults and children) signed an initial petition.

November 1950: At a pre-trial hearing, U.S. District Court Judge J. Waties Waring reminded the NAACP lawyers that the real issue concerned segregation itself, not unequal facilities in a particular area. He dismissed the case without prejudice.

1950: A second, subsequent case with the slightly different name of Briggs et al. v. Elliott et al. was filed in the Federal District Court to challenge the constitutionality of the “separate but equal” doctrine. Twenty adults petitioned on behalf of 46 minors who lived and attended school in School District 22 (now School District One). Harry Briggs, Sr. was the first name on the petition. Defendants were the members of the Board of Trustees of School District 22 and several school administrators. Roderick W. Elliott was the chairman of the board. Much to his regret, Pearson could not be a plaintiff because he did not reside in School District 22. De Laine continued to rally and encourage the plaintiffs and their supporters. He also was not a plaintiff.

May 28, 1951: Briggs was heard in U.S. District Court by Judges John J. Parker, George B. Timmerman and J. Waties Waring.

June 1951: The court rendered a split decision in support of the constitutionality of the “separate, but equal” doctrine. Waring wrote a remarkable, 28-page dissenting opinion. However, as part of the decision, the court found that the educational facilities were unequal and ruled that Clarendon County must equalize them.

1951: The NAACP appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

January 1952: The U.S. Supreme Court ordered Briggs returned to the lower court for a review of progress being made in equalizing educational facilities.

December 9-11, 1952: Briggs was heard, along with three other similar cases, under the title Brown et al. v. Board of Education of Topeka et al. A fifth case, arguing the illegality of public school segregation under the 5th Amendment, was heard on the following day.

December 1953: NAACP lawyers, led by Thurgood Marshall, presented additional arguments on all five of the cases, collectively known as Brown, to the Supreme Court.

May 17, 1954: Based on arguments heard in 1952 and 1953, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation in public schools was a violation of the 14th Amendment. It extended its ruling to include the fifth case that was argued under the 5th Amendment.

May 1955: The Supreme Court handed down a second ruling on the five Brown et al v. Board of Education of Topeka et al. cases, with the directive that schools should be desegregated WITH ALL DELIBERATE SPEED.

September 2004: The US Congress awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor to “Pioneers and Petitioners from Clarendon County South Carolina”, citing Judge J. Waties Waring’s dissenting opinion: ‘They proved that “segregation in education can never produce equality and that it is an evil that must be eradicated.”‘