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.’”
Even Judge Julius Waring who heard the case was shunned by the white community for his stances on equality. He eventually moved to New York and retired from the bench in 1952.
Consequently, the Briggs family had to relocate to Florida and their son never received the benefits of a desegregated classroom. Nor did he achieve the dream he had to follow in the footsteps of the Rev. DeLaine.
Harry Briggs and his family didn’t court public attention, but they got more than their share while in South Carolina, even if the history books have practically ignored them.
The Rev. DeLaine and the Briggs family, along with another activist, were awarded, posthumously, Congressional Gold Medals in 2003 or 2004. South Carolina awarded Eliza Briggs its Order of the Palmetto, the state’s highest civilian honor.
Not much is known about the life of Harry Briggs Jr. after the trials and relocations. According to Nathaniel Briggs, his brother never really “got much from the successful lawsuit.” Briggs graduated from high school, the brother said, “without attending an integrated classroom.” But he had no regrets about what his father had done to bring about change.
“What he did, a lot of people didn’t do it,” Briggs added 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 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.
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.