They were on a pilgrimage, Judge Waties Waring later said, searching for “a little whiff of freedom.”
On May 28, 1951, hundreds of black South Carolinians crowded the intersection of Broad and Meeting streets, struggling to get inside Charleston’s federal courthouse. Many of them had arrived in battered old jalopies three hours before the 10 a.m. hearing.
Most would never make it beyond the hallways.
At least they would be nearby when the federal court took up what The News and Courier called the nation’s first trial of segregation, Briggs v. Elliott.
That case was the country’s first step in a long march toward desegregation, and it started in part because of one little boy’s long walk to school in Clarendon County.
Harry Briggs was simply mad that his son — Harry Jr. — and other black children had to walk miles to school while the state provided buses for white children. That led him to join an NAACP lawsuit that eventually changed the nation.
And ruined his family’s life.
Harry Briggs Jr. died this month in New York at the age of 75, his place in history largely forgotten.
That is a shame. His plight not only brought all those people to Charleston on a warm spring morning. It also brought a nation together.
Briggs v. Elliott began in 1947 as a lawsuit asking the Clarendon County School Board to provide bus service for black students.
Harry Briggs Sr., a World War II veteran, was not particularly leading the charge for desegregation; alphabetical order put his name atop the lawsuit.
And made him a target.
His boss at the filling station fired him on Christmas Eve because he wouldn’t take his name off the petition. His wife lost her job at a local motel for the same reason.
Briggs tried farming, but local stores wouldn’t sell him seed. Even young Harry received threats.
The leader of the Clarendon movement, the Rev. Joseph A DeLaine, fared even worse. He not only lost his job, his home was burned and he barely escaped a drive-by shooting.
South Carolina did not cotton to change easily.
But then, a lot was at stake. By that May 1951 morning when the trial began, the case had taken on a much greater significance.
U.S. District Judge J. Waties Waring had persuaded the NAACP lawyer — a young Thurgood Marshall — to expand the case and challenge the legality of the 1896 Supreme Court decision that established “separate but equal” as the law of the land.
During the trial, one state official predicted South Carolina would eliminate public schools before it allowed the races to mix in classrooms.
The fight culminated three years later with the U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, which ended segregation in schools.
By then the Briggs family was on its way out of South Carolina.
Harry Briggs Jr. never studied in a desegregated classroom, never became a preacher as he’d once hoped, and rarely received any recognition for his role in one of the most historical events of the 20th century.
The New York Times wrote a nice obituary for him last week, in which his brother, Nathaniel, noted that the family never wanted attention.
Especially, you must assume, the kind they got.
The plaintiffs in Briggs v. Elliott should be celebrated in classrooms today, immortalized in history books. And some state officials should be forced to read those books.
On the first day of trial in 1951, Clarendon County school officials urged the court to give them more time to equalize services.
Today, you can hear those pleas echoed in the lawsuit between the state and its smallest rural school districts — a case that has dragged on for 23 years.
Perhaps if more people remembered Harry Briggs Jr., it wouldn’t be that way.
Reach Brian Hicks at firstname.lastname@example.org
HARRY BRIGGS JR., INTEGRATION CATALYST
By Wire News
| August 20,2016
AP file photo From left, Linda Brown Smith, Harry Briggs Jr., Ethel Louise Belton Brown and Spottswood Bolling Jr. speak at a news conference in 1964. Briggs’s parents originated the lawsuit that put an end to public school segregation.
Harry Briggs Jr., whose parents originated the pivotal lawsuit that struck down public school segregation in 1954, but whose name was relegated by fate to a forgotten legal footnote, died Aug. 9 in the Bronx, New York City. He was 75.
The cause was complications of cancer, his wife, Helen, said.
Briggs’ parents were furious that 8-year-old Harry and his fellow black students in Clarendon County, South Carolina, were forced to walk as far as 10 miles to attend classes while whites were bused at public expense to their own segregated school.
With Harry Briggs Sr. listed alphabetically as the lead plaintiff, the local chapter of the NAACP filed suit in 1949 against the school district in a case argued by Thurgood Marshall, who would become the first black justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
When it reached the Supreme Court, Briggs v. Elliott was merged with four similar cases and became known collectively as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. The NAACP lawyers argued that segregation itself, and the concept of “separate but equal” schools for blacks and whites, violated the 14th Amendment’s “equal protection” guarantee.
Why did Brown — the Rev. Oliver L. Brown, who stood in for his daughter, Linda, a third-grader, on the legal papers — instead of Briggs wind up being immortalized as a benchmark in civil rights jurisprudence?
Historians have attributed the naming convention to a scheduling quirk involving the five lawsuits, although there has been some speculation that Tom C. Clark, a Supreme Court justice from Texas, gave Brown prominence, figuring that advancing a case from Kansas, instead of one from South Carolina, would make it appear less like the court was singling out the South.
Reversing the court’s 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, the justices ruled unanimously on May 14, 1954, that “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate, but equal’ has no place” because “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
By then, Linda Brown was already in junior high school, which in Topeka had been integrated earlier. She became a teacher, and was instrumental in reopening the Kansas case and proving that the city’s schools were still segregated. She also began a foundation with her sister, Cheryl, to campaign for educational equity.
The Briggs family’s fate was more biblical. Having stirred the racial status quo in Summerton, they inherited the wind.
Even before the lawsuit was filed, Harry Briggs’ parents lost their jobs because they had signed a petition in 1947 calling on Clarendon County School Board 22 to supply school buses for black students. Theirs were the first two names on the petition, which was organized by the Rev. Joseph A. DeLaine, the principal of the all-black Scott’s Branch School. Harry’s was third. Their request was rejected.
“He had this job at the gas station for so many years, and they told him if he don’t take his name off the petition, they would fire him,” Briggs said of his father in a 1985 interview for the PBS documentary “Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (1954-65).”
Harry Sr., a Navy veteran who had served in the South Pacific in World War II, was fired on Christmas Eve as an attendant at the Sinclair gas station owned by the mayor of Summerton, H. C. Carrigan. Harry’s mother, the former Eliza Gamble, was discharged as a chambermaid at a local motel.
Briggs v. Elliott (R.W. Elliott was the chairman of the school district board) became so locally infamous that young Harry was warned away from white neighborhoods and lost his paper route. Even the family cow was supposedly served with a summons for wandering into an all-white cemetery.
“They banded together to correct the injustice of unequal education,” Nathaniel Briggs, Harry Jr.’s youngest brother, said Tuesday. “Lots of people paid the price in reprisals.”
Harry Briggs Jr. was born on Feb. 10, 1941, in Summerton. He walked the 5 miles to a wooden schoolhouse, which had 12 rooms, one for each grade. (When the coal supply was depleted, he and his classmates were assigned to chop wood.)
In addition to his wife, the former Helen Mack, with whom he lived in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx, and his brother, Nathaniel, he is survived by two children from an earlier marriage, Patricia Briggs-Perry and Audra Briggs; two sons, Ronald Junious and Gregory Junious; and a sister, Catherine Smith.
Briggs once said that he had wanted to be a preacher, but even with a $1,000 scholarship, he never enrolled in college. His father, having failed at farming when merchants refused to sell him seed, moved to Florida in 1957. The family followed — except for Harry Jr., who, still in his teens, went to New York, in 1960.
“I think, sometimes, he just lost sight of the dream,” Nathaniel Briggs, a former Ford Motor Co. worker who now lives in Teaneck, New Jersey, said of his brother. “The petition and the lawsuit kind of broke up the family.”
In New York, Harry Jr. worked as a short-order cook at Woolworth’s on 42nd Street, parked cars for an auto rental agency and then got a job as a guard at the Jacob J. Javits Convention Center and Madison Square Garden. He retired in 2008 because of illness.
In 1991, Briggs v. Elliott was celebrated in “Separate but Equal,” a television film starring Sidney Poitier as Thurgood Marshall; Cleavon Little as his deputy, Robert L. Carter; and Burt Lancaster as John W. Davis, the lawyer for South Carolina who defended segregation.
In 2004, Harry’s parents, DeLaine (whose house was burned down after the petition campaign) and Levi Pearson, a farmer who filed an earlier, unsuccessful, lawsuit against the school board, were posthumously awarded Congressional Gold Medals for their roles in desegregation.
Nathaniel Briggs said that except for the unwanted notoriety, his brother never really got much from the successful lawsuit himself. He graduated from high school without attending an integrated class. But Harry Jr. had no regrets that Harry Sr. had pursued the case.
“What he did, a lot of people didn’t do it,” Harry Jr. said in the PBS interview. “A lot of people like other people had their jobs, farming and everything else. My father, he did all the suffering. He was really proud and made me feel proud, too.”
In Summerton today, 95 percent of the students in the public school system are black and 95 percent in the predominant private school are white.
JACK RILEY, WHO PLAYED CARLIN ON ‘THE BOB NEWHART SHOW’
Jack Riley, right, being comforted by Bob Newhart in an episode of “The Bob Newhart Show.” Credit CBS, via Photofest
Jack Riley, who played a sour, self-absorbed patient on “The Bob Newhart Show” and also voiced a character on Nickelodeon’s animated series “Rugrats,” died on Friday in Los Angeles. He was 80.
His death was announced by his representative, Paul Doherty, who did not provide the cause.
Besides portraying Elliot Carlin, a client of the psychologist played by Bob Newhart on the 1970s sitcom, he provided the voice for the absent-minded dad Stu Pickles on “Rugrats” and its spinoff, “All Grown Up!” Mr. Riley also appeared in the Mel Brooks films “Silent Movie,” “High Anxiety,” “History of the World: Part I” and “Spaceballs.”
He reprised the Carlin character on “ALF” and “St. Elsewhere,” and played a character very much like Carlin on “Newhart,” a subsequent series by Mr. Newhart in the late 1980s.
Mr. Riley also voiced commercials and made guest appearances on numerous TV series including “Diff’rent Strokes,” “Night Court” and “Seinfeld.”
He was born on Dec. 30, 1935, in Cleveland. There was no immediate information on survivors.