A Look at the Price Paid to Desegregate Schools For the final installment of our series, "Great Expectations," we take a closer look at the Briggs v. Elliott case. The South Carolina school desegregation suit became part of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case in the early 1950s.

A Look at the Price Paid to Desegregate Schools

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/18574739/18574721" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

All this month, our series Great Expectations focuses on people who've triumphed by overcoming adversity in their lives. Today, we'd like to take a look at the classroom.

The U.S. Supreme Court's landmark decision Brown v. Board of Education was a huge triumph for black students in America. It signaled the end of legally segregated schools. And it helped give all kids legal access to a good education regardless of race. But that 1954 case grew out of five others that have been folded into a single unit. One of those cases was Briggs v. Elliott. It came out of Clarendon County, South Carolina. That's where Reverend Joseph Armstrong DeLaine helped a group of black parents with their demand for equal schools. DeLaine and then-NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall turned that suit into a push for desegregated education.

Joining me now to talk about the Briggs case is Nathaniel Briggs. His parents were the lead plaintiffs in the case. Also, Joseph Elliott, he's the grandson of Roderick Miles Elliott who ran one of the Clarendon County's school boards and was the case's lead defendant. And Joseph DeLaine Jr., son of the late Reverend DeLaine.

Gentlemen, thanks for coming on.

Mr. NATHANIEL BRIGGS (Son of Lead Plaintiffs, Briggs v. Elliott): Thanks.

Mr. JOSEPH ELLIOTT (Roderick Miles Elliott's Grandson; Adjunct Lecturer, University of South Carolina): Thank you.

Mr. JOSEPH DeLAINE JR. (Son of Reverend Joseph DeLaine): Thank you for having us.

CHIDEYA: So, Joseph DeLaine, I want to start with you. Your father played a major role in getting the case to court. How did Reverend DeLaine first get involved with the parents in Summerton, the town where he ministered?

Mr. DeLAINE: My father ministered in the Clarendon Country area and lived in Summerton. He - this was his home county. His personality was one that he was involved in activities outside of his church parish as much as he was in the church parish. So therefore, he had the confidence of the people there, particularly the African-Americans. And he was very involved or concerned about the uplift in terms of the socio-economic problems in that area.

CHIDEYA: Nathaniel, you grew up in Summerton. You went to school there. What were the schools like?

Mr. BRIGGS: Well, let me explain it. I only went to the - physically(ph) there in Clarendon County due to that time of the petition, we moved away in 1960. But in that short time, it was blacks on side of the town and whites on the other side of town. That it was always separate there in town, also the school. The only time we came in contact with whites is either in the store or -basically, that's it. We never intermingled at all.

CHIDEYA: Now, when you say that you moved away due to signing the petition, were there threats? Why did you move away?

Mr. BRIGGS: Well, when dad and my mother signed the petition, they were threatened and their job was terminated. And he tried to make a living there in town as a farmer. But he couldn't get the proper price for his crop. So he eventually winds up giving up the farm idea and move to Miami to make a living and sent money back home to us. And that's when father left us in South Carolina. And two years later, we wind up moving to Miami, Florida with him. When you're in the struggle and you couldn't get work when you're poor, you just can't just up and move. So within two years, we moved to Miami with our father.

CHIDEYA: Do you ever or did your father ever regret the price your family had to pay?

Mr. BRIGGS: Well, no, because he knew that he made the right decision. Personally, I didn't think that he knew all this stuff was going to happen to him. I'm quite sure he didn't want to leave his mother and his parents in South Carolina nor leave his family in South Carolina, but that was the price that he paid. And, you know, we moved around quite a bit in a short distance of time.

CHIDEYA: Joseph Elliott, your grandfather is the late Roderick Miles Elliott of Briggs v. Elliott. Tell me a little bit about him and about his status in the community.

Mr. ELLIOTT: Well, he was a prominent figure and a white figure in Summerton. And he was chairman of the board of one of the, I think, 26 districts in Clarendon County. And he entertained the same opinions of almost all of the white Southerners of his day. He's the product of the societally imposed mindset and I think that controlled his thinking. He did what was expected of him as chairman of the board.

CHIDEYA: When you have heard your family history passed down, what kind of impact did it make on you family, specifically, and perhaps other members of the while community to have to really consider what this meant in terms of potential integration?

Mr. ELLIOTT: When I was growing up, I was - I was 14 when the decision was handed down, May 17, 1954. And I was, you know, most whites were just oblivious to the disparities there, and we were the proverbial blind in this. And I guess we were just conditioned that way. You know, we saw some individual cases where blacks were mistreated and, you know, we were sympathetic. And sometimes, we just couldn't understand it. But we got over that because it was just a way of life. And once again, I guess we were subtly conditioned to accept things the way they are and the way they were at the time.

CHIDEYA: Well, gentlemen, we are going to go to a quick break. I'm going to come back and talk with you more about the landmark case Briggs v. Elliott and about the desegregation of America's schools.

We're talking with Joseph Elliot, Joseph DeLaine and Nathaniel Briggs. We'll be right back.

Next on NEWS & NOTES, more about a landmark civil rights case and the lessons people learn from it. Plus, pro football gets ready for its biggest party of the year, woo-hoo(ph). I think there's a game in there somewhere, too. NPR's Tony Cox talks to the New York Times sportswriter Bill Rhoden about Sunday's Super Bowl.

You're listening to NEWS & NOTES from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: I'm Farai Chideya and this is NEWS & NOTES.

We're continuing our look at a historic civil rights case - the final part of our series Great Expectations. The historic Brown v. Board case that ended legal segregation was actually made up of five different cases from across the country. One of those came out of South Carolina. It was called Briggs v. Elliott. Today, I'm speaking with people whose parents and grandparents were directly involved in that case.

I'm talking to Nathaniel Briggs; his parents were the lead plaintiffs in the case. Also, Joseph Elliott, he's the grandson of Roderick Miles Elliott who ran one of Clarendon Country school boards and was the case's lead defendant. And Joseph DeLaine Jr., son of the late Reverend DeLaine. Reverend DeLaine helped a group of black parents with their demands for equal schools.

Gentlemen, welcome back.

Mr. DeLAINE: Thank you.

Mr. ELLIOTT: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: I want to ask the three of you, starting with you, Joseph Elliott, how did whites in Summerton respond to desegregation once it came?

Mr. ELLIOTT: Well, they didn't really. In other words, they didn't comply with the ruling. There was no - there's very little integration. I left Summerton in 1960 and returned in 1995. So I was away for 35 years. And I saw a lot of change in terms of, you know, level of communication and so on. But as far as the schools, they're much like they were and that's in the - that corridor of shame and they're just going from minimal to adequate and it still got a long ways to go, I think.

CHIDEYA: You just mentioned the corridor of shame. I was in South Carolina last week and did a story about this group of poor rural schools that along Interstate 95. Now, some of the schools today are suing South Carolina for more resources. I spoke to a parent named Cynthia Thomas and she's the school secretary at J.V. Martin Junior High. Here is how she described her school's poor condition.

Ms. CYNTHIA THOMAS (School Secretary, J.V. Martin Junior High): I think it needs a lot of construction work. I think they put a lot of paint and different things over it, but when you go to the core of things, you can tell that the foundation of some things are just not stable, and it will not last for long.

CHIDEYA: Nathaniel, you don't live in South Carolina anymore but you do go visit. Does this description sound a little bit like the black schools of the early 1950s?

Mr. BRIGGS: Yes, because the school - a lot of the schools, and especially in the poor communities, are still the same. It's like the case that happened 50 years ago, we celebrated it and we can move on. But that same school district that brought the case, that changed America forever, is still poor.

CHIDEYA: Joseph DeLaine Jr., how do you make sense of what's going on in South Carolina, but also nationally? Many people have argued that America's schools are resegregating. From your point of view, knowing what you do, having the family history that you do, how do you make sense of what's going on in the U.S. today?

Mr. DeLAINE: I don't know how to make sense of what's going on there because the schools across United States are resegregating just in the past few years. With regard to Clarendon County and Summerton, it takes more than just a school system to improve the school system. There's a complete societal change that has to be made. And this includes the economic and educational conditions of those people that already exist in the area. And that has not occurred.

CHIDEYA: This series that we have been doing all month, it's called Great Expectations because despite some of the things that we're talking about right now that have highlighted the ongoing struggle for equality, this has been -this case has created change in America. What I would ask of you, finally, is what have you taken away that is a lesson about perseverance or triumph even -Nathaniel, let me start with you - from this case.

Mr. BRIGGS: You will get involved with a problem and you come to the realization that you can't turn around because the cause is just, the cause is right. There is no turning around when you get involved in a struggle.

CHIDEYA: Joseph Elliott, hearing what Nathaniel said, many people paid a price in how desegregation did or did not work. What comes out despite that price that sticks with you as a victory?

Mr. ELLIOTT: Well, you know, someone was demonized in the early days and really just victimized - and a lot of the whites - by the press, and so they sort of, you know, just distanced themselves from the case. And what we tried to do with the 50th anniversary was to celebrate it and get the, you know, the total population together and it just didn't work out because of the history there. A lot of people looked at it as a black victory in Summerton and it was a victory for America. And that's just the way I look at it and this way, a lot of white student look at it now, but not enough.

CHIDEYA: Joseph DeLaine Jr., what do you see coming out of this that has been positive?

Mr. DeLAINE: If we look back, many of the changes that occurred after this were not in the schools and they affected every American in this country. When we talk about the oppression that was there and the sensitivity to denial of citizens, that has changed. There was an attempt with the schools, however, I don't think that that was successful in equalizing them, and I think there are other basic problems in this country that have to be overcome before we get equalization of educational opportunity in schools.

CHIDEYA: Well, gentlemen, I want to thank you for sharing your time and your stories with us.

Mr. ELLIOTT: Thank you.

Mr. DeLAINE: Thank you.

Mr. BRIGGS: Thank you so much.

CHIDEYA: I spoke with Nathaniel Briggs, his parents Harry and Eliza Briggs were the two lead plaintiffs in Briggs v. Elliott. That suit was combined with four others to create the historic Brown v. Board of Education case. Nathaniel Briggs is retired from the auto industry and lives in Teaneck, New Jersey.

We also spoke with Joseph Elliott. He's the grandson of the late Roderick Miles Elliott who chaired one of Clarendon County school boards and who also was a lead defendant in Briggs. Joseph Elliott is an adjunct lecturer in the History Department at the University of South Carolina, Aiken.

Also, finally, spoke with Joseph DeLaine Jr. He's the son of the later Reverend Joseph DeLaine. Mr. DeLaine is retired from the pharmaceutical industry and he lives in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.