SUMMERTON, S.C. - History always lurks nearby in Summerton, often in the most unexpected places. An empty field. A small motel. A school district office.
It was here, in this town of about 1,000 people, that the first modern federal case challenging the "separate but equal" doctrine laid out by the U.S. Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson began. In Briggs v. Elliott, filed before the more famous Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, a young lawyer named Thurgood Marshall first honed his arguments against the reigning Jim Crow system.
The past is alive and well in Summerton, mingled with the present, in the form of Leola Parks, one of the first black students to integrate the local high school, now an executive assistant to the black superintendent of Clarendon School District 1. It is alive in the form of Joe Elliott, a descendant of the white school board chairman who rejected a request to give black pupils a school bus - and unwittingly set off the modern civil rights movement.
And it is alive in a town still trying to sort through its legacy, a legacy not only as the birthplace of civil rights, but also as a town that has become synonymous with racism and segregation.
"I think Briggs v. Elliott is central to Brown, no doubt about it," said Robert Pratt, a history professor at the University of Georgia. In Summerton, he said, Marshall was able to point to "a clear-cut example where 'separate but equal' was clearly a hoax."
It all started over a bus. Black parents at the segregated high school simply wanted their children to be able to ride to school the same way their white counterparts did. The response from board Chairman Roderick M. Elliott couldn't be clearer.
"We ain't got no buses for your little n----- children," he infamously replied.
Eventually, with the help of Marshall, then a lawyer with the NAACP, the residents sued to equalize the educational opportunity for white and black pupils in the county. The case went to court in 1949 but was withdrawn when federal Judge Waties Waring advised the plaintiffs to sue to overturn "separate but equal."
Judge Waring was later the sole dissenting vote in the three-judge panel's decision that started Briggs v. Elliott on the road to the Supreme Court, where it became one of four cases combined with Brown.
Judge Waring was forced to flee South Carolina and did not come back to Charleston until his body was taken there for his funeral. Hundreds of blacks attended the service, Mr. Elliott said. Only a handful of whites turned out.
Judge Waring was not alone. The case seemed to wreck the lives of nearly everyone it touched, particularly those bold enough to sign the petition.
White townspeople were told not to sell to those who had attached their names to the case, Mr. Elliott said, or do anything to help them survive.
"All of them that held jobs were fired," he said. "Every single one of the them."
Harry Briggs, for whom the case was named, lost his job at a filling station. His wife, Eliza, was fired from her position at Summerton Motel.
Joseph A. DeLaine Jr., a son of the reverend who led the town to action, remembers the retaliation he saw and the stories he's heard.
One of the petitioners, James Brown, quit his job rather than allow his boss's business to be destroyed by an economic boycott. He moved to Detroit. Another, Annie Gibson, was evicted from her house on Christmas Eve. Willie "Bo" Stukes lost his job as a mechanic; he began a business of his own at home. Soon after, he was killed when a car he was working on fell on him.
Arson destroyed the Rev. J.A. DeLaine's house in 1951. In 1955, after the Supreme Court issued a second decision ordering states to implement Brown with "all deliberate speed," Mr. DeLaine says, his father "was given 10 days to leave town or die."
The Rev. DeLaine's church was burned, and a group of gunmen came for him after the deadline passed. He returned fire, and a warrant was issued for his arrest. He fled to New York, where authorities refused to extradite him, and then to Charlotte, N.C. The Rev. DeLaine, who died in 1974, never returned to South Carolina, where the warrant was finally lifted in 2000.
In some ways, Summerton is a very different place than it was in the 1950s. The police chief and director of town affairs are both black, as is District 1 Superintendent Clarence Willie. And the white mayor of the town, an internationally successful businesswoman, takes ownership of the Briggs case.
"That's as much my story as anybody else's," said Mayor Hinson Phillips, who added that many of the doors she was able to open as a woman were unlocked by the civil rights revolution that followed Brown.
But many say that even the changes that have taken place in Summerton over the past 50 years aren't enough. Ms. Parks said town residents shouldn't look on the upcoming anniversary as a celebration.
"The town of Summerton has just begun, as I want to call it, a transformation, a coming together. ... So we really don't have anything to celebrate right now," she said. "But we are commemorating, and hopefully, 50 years from now, we'll be able to celebrate."
A recent controversy that began as a dispute about the hiring and firing powers of the town's police chief ended with Ms. Phillips, town council members and a local foundation swapping sometimes racially charged anonymous letters and conflict-of-interest allegations.
Ms. Parks said white and black residents don't usually socialize together unless at an "orchestrated" event. Mr. Elliott largely agrees, saying that black and white co-workers often eat together at lunch, something that would have been unthinkable at the time of the Briggs case. But joint meals after business hours are rare.
"I think a great divide exists in Summerton because of this case," he said. "Whites don't like to talk about it; we got very bad press. We have very good white people here in Summerton, and they've been hurt by it. Their feelings have been hurt."
Living in shadows
For some, such as Ms. Parks and Mr. Elliott, the commemoration strikes a very personal chord.
"My surname is attached to that case," Mr. Elliott said. "So I have more at stake than most people, as well."
He wants those who think about the case to remember that his grandfather, and many others, were "products of their time," though he admits that doesn't make their actions right. Mr. Elliott does regret his grandfather's choice of words.
"But, again, I'm not ashamed of my grandfather. He was basically a good man," he says, and then his voice begins to rise. "He had to handle a legacy that he inherited. And for him to have acted in any other way, gosh, I don't know what would have happened to him."
Joe Elliott left Summerton in 1961, then returned 35 years later. Since then, he has experienced the personal toll of Briggs, clashing with friends and family over the case.
"I've noticed, I haven't been ostracized, but I've felt tension that I haven't felt before," he said. "A few people that used to call me Joe don't use my Christian name anymore."
Now, Mr. Elliott pushes for reconciliation, calling for black residents of the town to stop "demonizing the defendants" in Briggs and for whites to recognize the bravery of the plaintiffs.
In recent years, Ms. Parks attended a reunion where 10 years of Summerton High School alumni gathered. She was the only black person in the room, and she found it somewhat awkward to reunite with people who used to clear a crowded hallway for her so they wouldn't have to touch her.
"But we had so many that were not friendly then that reached out," she said. "As a matter of fact, there was one young man ... he just says, 'I am so sorry for the way we acted then.'"
Ms. Phillips, who attended North Augusta High School, has made publicizing the Briggs case a centerpiece of her mayoral agenda. She said others would share her respect for the plaintiffs in the case if they knew of their courage.
"From the bottom of my heart, I am very reverent and respectful to those petitioners," she said. "And I know others would be if they just could hear the total story."
For his part, Mr. Elliott says all Summerton whites must come to that realization as part of a process of reconciliation.
"Just as the case created a division, a lasting division, that has lasted these 50 years, we think the case offers a whole lot of promise for reconciliation," he said. "I mean, after all, it's been 50 years. Are we going to wait another 50 years to admit that these blacks, these petitioners, had courage that I can hardly imagine?"
Reach Brandon Larrabee at (404) 681-1701 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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