Harry Briggs Jr., member of an unheralded civil rights family

Herb Boyd | 8/25/2016, 10:01 a.m.
Once more with the recent death of Harry Briggs Jr., we are reminded of the Civil Rights Movement and many ...
Harry Briggs Jr.

Once more with the recent death of Harry Briggs Jr., we are reminded of the Civil Rights Movement and many who, at best, are footnotes in history. Although most Americans can cite the date and circumstances of Brown v. Board of Education, very few have any idea of the importance of Briggs to that historic Supreme Court decision in 1954.

He was 75 and reportedly died of cancer Aug. 9 in the Bronx.

Like Linda Brown, the namesake in the decision, Briggs was a child who had to walk a long distance to get to school in Clarendon County, S.C. And like Brown’s parents, Briggs’ parents took their complaint to the NAACP. In 1947, the lawsuit later filed by the NAACP, with Thurgood Marshall as the lead attorney, demanded the county school board provide bus service for the African-American students.

Their case, Briggs v. Elliott (the school superintendent) was the nation’s first trial against segregation.

It took three years before the case was combined with other similar cases to culminate in Brown v. Board of Education. Thus began the slow disappearance of the breakthrough provided by the Briggs family.

The breakthrough, however, was not without damaging consequences for Harry Briggs and his wife, Eliza, then residents of Summerton, S.C.

Another similarity with the Brown family was related to their alphabetical order, placing them as the lead plaintiffs in the cases. Because of this placement, Harry Briggs was the target of the retribution from opposition forces in the community and elsewhere. He was fired from his job at a local filling station, owned by the mayor of Summerton, when he refused to remove his name from an earlier petition mounted by the movement. For the same reason, his wife was fired from her job as a chambermaid at a local motel.

“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,” Harry Briggs Jr. said of his father in a 1985 interview for the PBS documentary, “Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (1954-1965).”

To make ends meet, the elder Briggs, a Navy veteran who had served in the South Pacific, tried farming, but stores in his community wouldn’t sell him seeds. Meanwhile, their son was harassed and intimidated, and they all received death threats.

The Rev. Joseph A. DeLaine, a Methodist minister and the head of the Clarendon movement, was also a victim of acrimony from local white citizens. He lost his job, his house and church were burned and he barely escaped a drive-by shooting.

And this piece is an opportunity say a little bit more about the often overlooked Rev. DeLaine:

“Reverend Joseph Armstrong DeLaine, who died in 1974, was one of the true heroes in the civil rights struggle to break down the barriers of segregation. DeLaine’s commitment to his faith and to the cause of civil rights began at an early age. Expected to become a farmer or a craftsman, he enrolled instead at Allen University in Columbia, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1931. To finance his education, DeLaine worked as a laborer and ran a dry cleaning business near the campus. DeLaine remained at Allen to pursue a bachelor of divinity degree at the university’s Dickerson Seminary. He combined preaching with teaching and was a public schoolteacher in South Carolina for 17 years. As a teacher at the Macedonia Baptist High School in Blackville, DeLaine saw that discrimination was not just racial. Despite his being a popular and effective teacher, the school’s trustees would not give him a permanent appointment unless he left the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Of this incident, he wrote, ‘A person who hates another because of looks is just as bad as one who stupidly hates another’s faith in the church of his choice.’”