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Dawn of Desegregation

J. A. De Laine and Briggs v. Elliott

Ophelia De Laine Gona

Publication Year: 2012

At the forefront of a new era in American history, Briggs v. Elliott was one of the first five school segregation lawsuits argued consecutively before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1952. The resulting collective 1954 landmark decision, known as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, struck down legalized segregation in American public schools. The genesis of Briggs was in 1947, when the black community of Clarendon County, South Carolina, took action against the abysmally poor educational services provided for their children. In a move that would define him as an early—although unsung—champion for civil rights justice, Joseph A. De Laine, a pastor and school principal, led his neighbors to challenge South Carolina's "separate but equal" practice of racial segregation in public schools. Their lawsuit, Briggs, provided the impetus that led to Brown. In this engrossing memoir, Ophelia De Laine Gona, the daughter of Reverend De Laine, becomes the first to cite and credit adequately the forces responsible for filing Briggs. Based on De Laine's writings and papers, witness testimonies, and the author's personal knowledge, Gona's account fills a gap in civil rights history by providing a poignant insider's view of the events and personalities—including NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall and federal district judge J. Waties Waring—central to this trailblazing case. Though De Laine and the brave parents who filed Briggs v. Elliott initially lost their lawsuit in district court, the case grew in significance when the plaintiffs appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. Three years after the appeal, the Briggs case was one of the five lawsuits that shared the historic Brown decision. However, the ruling did not prevent De Laine and his family from suffering vicious reprisals from vindictive white citizens. In 1955, after he was shot at and his church was burned to the ground, De Laine prudently fled South Carolina in order to save his life. He died in exile in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1974. Fifty years after the Supreme Court's decision, De Laine was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in recognition of his role in reshaping the American civil rights landscape. Those interested in justice, human rights, and leadership, as well as in the civil rights movement and South Carolina social history, will be fascinated by this inspiring tale of how one man's unassailable moral character, raw courage, and steely fortitude inspired a group of humble people to become instruments of change and set in motion a corrective force that revolutionized the laws and social practices of a nation.

Published by: University of South Carolina Press


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pp. 1-7


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pp. vii-8

List of Illustrations

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pp. viii-9

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pp. ix-xii

As the United States of America approached the fiftieth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s momentous 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (Brown) decision, my brothers—Joseph A. De Laine, Jr., and Brumit B. De Laine—and I were troubled. We knew that, of the five different legal cases that shaped that historic decision, Briggs et al. v. Elliott et al. (Briggs) was the seminal one. ...

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pp. xiii-xiv

Great care has been taken to ensure the highest possible level of accuracy in recounting the events of this fascinating saga, which happened mainly between 1940 and 1955. Reconstruction of the incidents and their chronology relied heavily on details and, many times, words drawn from the papers of the late Rev. Joseph Armstrong “J. A.” De Laine, my father. ...

Part 1: Before

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1. Briars of Discrimination

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pp. 3-18

In an undated speech, Rev. J. A. De Laine wrote, “A long story is behind the first of the five cases [the Briggs case] which caused the courts to reverse ‘Separate-But-Equal.’ The story takes its beginning in 1946 and continues until the present day. On the banks of the Santee River in South Carolina, where the Santee Hydro-Electric Dam was built, ...

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2. Spokesman for the Disenfranchised

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pp. 19-23

When Rev. De Laine was assigned to Society Hill Church in 1940, a major change was in the making for church members. A hydroelectric plant was being built nearby on the Santee River. By the time he arrived, the basin of one of two planned reservoirs had been cleared and its dam built. ...

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3. The Challenge

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pp. 24-30

During the year Rev. De Laine said the story of Briggs began—1946—he turned forty-eight years old. He was the principal of a little elementary school in Silver, three miles north of Summerton, and still the pastor of Pine Grove / Society Hill circuit. He earned his second bachelor’s degree, a bachelor of divinity, that year. ...

Part 2: Quest for Equality, 1947–1951

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4. Ups and Downs

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pp. 33-41

South Carolina’s six-day legislative marathon in 1944 had succeeded in crafting a way to deny representation to black people, yet remain within the law. The Democratic Party had legally become the Democratic Club. To vote in the Democratic primary, it was necessary to first enroll in the newly formed club, something that could be done only at white-owned locations. ...

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5. Transition

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pp. 42-52

Even if Vander Stukes had been able to get Mr. Levi’s tax receipts altered and to provide financial aid for the parents’ bus, the Pearsons and the other country folk were no longer in the mood to accept such crumbs. Emboldened, they now wanted free and unconditional school bus transportation for their children. ...

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6. June 8

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pp. 53-59

The children called and the people came. More than three hundred people heeded the call. Sharecroppers, renters, and landowners came; and maids, farmhands and housewives. Journeymen and handymen came, as well as seven schoolteachers and five ministers. St. Mark’s plain, unvarnished pews were full. ...

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7. Across the Rubicon

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pp. 60-67

In the year 49 B.C.E., Julius Caesar and his army crossed the Rubicon, a little river that marked the northern boundary of Italy proper. Since Roman law forbade any general to lead an army across the Rubicon, Caesar’s action made armed conflict inevitable. Although it is said that General Caesar was unsure what he would do once he crossed, he went ahead and did it anyway. ...

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8. An Offer That Was Refused

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pp. 68-81

For three months every request for a rehearing was rebuffed. Even the visit by the man from the state’s Department of Education failed to trigger a meeting. Apparently determined not to be pushed around, the school board members dug their heels in deeper. At the end of August, Mr. Benson was still principal and the graduates’ grievances still had not been addressed. ...

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9. Warnings

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pp. 82-97

Armistice Day was the anniversary of the official end of the Great War, the war some people naively thought would end all wars. The armistice was signed on November 11, 1919, and all firing was to cease at 11:00 a.m.—the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. ...

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10. Showdown on Main

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pp. 98-105

By the end of the fiery Monday night meeting, Daddy was a hero. The people’s spirits were lifted and their determination strengthened. Lee Richardson, the sharecropper whose boss had sent a message to my father, declared, “If Rev. can take a stand like that, I sure can keep my name on that petition.” ...

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11. A Not-So-Merry Christmas

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pp. 106-112

Rev. De Laine stopped walking Summerton’s streets alone. “Hellhounds” and “hyenas” were after him during that awful period of terror—the worst, the hardest year of his life. The colorlessness of winter brought with it an equal drabness in the soul. In the little three-room houses where sharecroppers lived, ...

Part 3: Outcomes, 1951–1955

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12. Liar, Liar

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pp. 115-128

The sudden loss of jobs and homes by plaintiffs and supporters made life onerous. With home mortgages and growing families, the now unemployed Harry Briggs and Bo Stukes desperately needed incomes. Somehow both were able to secure enough land to qualify as farmers. ...

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13. Moving On

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pp. 129-142

Once the 1949–50 school year started at Scott’s Branch, it went on without interruption—except for the continual change of principals. A couple of days into the term, my mother found the combined responsibility of teaching sixth grade and running the school too much. She asked for assistance and Mis’ Amy was assigned to help her. ...

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14. Federal District Court

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pp. 143-151

The plaintiffs and their supporters continued to wait, impatient for the trial to be held and trying to manage in spite of their difficulties. And there were difficulties. The worst was Bo Stukes’s fate. Unable to find employment, the dashingly handsome navy veteran had supported his family for more than a year by using his backyard as a makeshift automobile garage. ...

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15. Verdicts

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pp. 152-164

Determined to prevent the horrifying situation of a six-year-old black boy sitting at a desk next to a six-year-old white girl, South Carolina’s lawmakers moved rapidly to equalize school facilities. Proceeds from a newly approved 3 percent sales tax financed a massive school improvement program. ...

Part 4: After 1955

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16. New Evil

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pp. 167-180

For five years our family enjoyed life in Lake City. The community enveloped us with warm acceptance, and the town truly became our home. Rev. De Laine still journeyed to Summerton occasionally, but other than overseeing the farm, his work in Clarendon was finished. ...

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17. Armageddon

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pp. 181-189

The next morning, Monday, October 10, Daddy chauffeured Mother to school and then, as was his habit, went to the high school’s little library to read for a while. Before long one of the teachers drew a chair close and began to admonish him for accepting reappointment to Lake City. ...

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pp. 190-196

Rev. De Laine found sanctuary in New York State, where the governor refused to grant extradition. However, the AME Church never gave him any official recognition for his role in the struggle for racial equality. Furthermore it gave him only token support as a minister, despite promises made before he left South Carolina. ...

Notes and Sources

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pp. 197-204


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pp. 205-212

E-ISBN-13: 9781611171747
Print-ISBN-13: 9781611171402

Page Count: 232
Publication Year: 2012