Briggs v. Elliott was one of the cases combined into Brown v. Board of Education and it started in Clarendon County. The school district had reserved all buses for white students, leaving Black students with long commutes, some of which included rowing paddle boats across bodies of water, 16 mile walks, and other harsh conditions.
Local members of the Black community, Levi Pearson, Hammett Pearson, and Joseph Lemon raised money to buy a used school bus, but its need for frequent maintenance led them to ask the superintendent, Roderick M. Elliott for a bus from the district to be used for Black students. Elliott refused stating that Black citizens didn’t pay enough taxes to provide a bus and asking white taxpayers to fund the bus would be an unfair burden.
Wanting to continue the fight for transportation for Black children, Pearson retained South Carolina attorney Harold Boulware and NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall and brought the lawsuit Pearson v. Clarendon County. Marshall argued that since the school board had provided bus transportation for white students, but not for Black students, they were violating the “separate but equal” doctrine established in Plessy v. Ferguson. Because of his lawsuit, Levi Pearson was subjected to acts of terror including gun shots fired into his home, and economic consequences like being refused credit from local banks to buy farming equipment.
Pearson v. Clarendon County was dismissed on a technicality because Pearson’s property spanned multiple districts. Not deterred, NAACP attorneys decided to pivot and aim for desegregation as a whole. Instead of asking for Black schools to be brought up to equal standards with white schools, the plaintiffs decided to ask that segregation be declared unconstitutional. Eventually, others in Clarendon County joined the suit, including the Briggs who became the main named plaintiffs.
A South Carolina three-judge panel ruled 2-1 that segregation was lawful but issued an injunction to equalize the obvious inferiority of Black schools in Clarendon County. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States, who returned it for rehearing in the district court, who found that progress had been made in Clarendon County toward equal school facilities. Thurgood Marshall argued that while progress had been made, if separation existed, schools would be unequal. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court again where it was consolidated with other desegregation cases into Brown v. Board of Education and was the first case argued for the landmark decision.
Brown v. Board of Education was a landmark victory in the fight for equality in the United States. However, it is important to acknowledge that the victory came with a cost to those associated with Briggs v. Elliott in the aftermath of the decision in South Carolina. People involved with the case were fired from their positions, had their church burned, and were victims of drive-by shootings. The fight for equality is always worth it, but not always easy. Thank you to those South Carolinians who fought for equal access to education!