Roots of Racial Justice in South Carolina

Lawsuit by Rural Farmers, Clergy Became Basis of 'Brown' Ruling

The Rev. Joseph Armstrong DeLaine preached at churches in Davis Station and Summerton, S.C., and was founder of the local chapter of the NAACP. In 1947, he convinced brothers Levi and Hammitt Pearson to sue for better schools for their children. Courtesy Levine Museum of the New South hide caption

Museum of the New South Exhibit: 'The Carolina Story That Changed America'
itoggle caption Courtesy Levine Museum of the New South

Levi and Hammitt Pearson hadn't planned on changing the nation. The two South Carolina farmers wanted something much simpler: They and more than a dozen other families in rural Clarendon County needed gas for a run-down bus to get their children to school.

When school officials refused, it sparked what is considered the first legal battle against desegregation of American schools. That case would become a foundation of one of the most important U.S. Supreme Court rulings of the century, Brown v. Board of Education.

The odyssey of the Brown ruling began when a rural preacher named Rev. J. A. DeLaine convinced his neighbors in Clarendon County to file a lawsuit demanding the end of separate, unequal schools for their children.

That lawsuit, Briggs v. Elliot, was the first of five across the nation that would be combined into the landmark 1954 Brown decision, which found that racially segregated schools and the notion of "separate but equal" were inherently unconstitutional.

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