On March 16, 1948 local Attorney Harold Bouleware together with Thurgood Marshall filed in U.S. District Court the case of Levi Pearson v. Board of Education. The case was dismissed on a technicality. The Court ruled that Mr. Pearson had no legal standing because he paid taxes in District 5 and his children attended school in District 21 and 26. The dismissal did discouraged a determined Reverend Delaine and by 1949 he had obtained enough signatures to file a second case.
The national office of the NAACP agreed to sponsor their case. Now the Clarendon county African American community was not just seeking buses, but educational equality. In May of 1950, with the help of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the case of Briggs v. Elliott was filed. Two months later, the plaintiffs’ attorney moved from simply pursuing equalization of facilities and obtaining buses to attacking segregation.
The lead plaintiff in that case was Harry Briggs a WWII naval veteran. Harry had volunteered and risked his life abroad to fight for the double victory. Harry fighting side by side with the other U.S. forces defeated the enemy without, but the enemy within was still pounding him economically and emotionally. He must now continue his battle against Jim Crow in a court system, a court system that gave birth to Jim Crow when it upheld Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896.
In 1939, as part of Mamie Clark’s research for her master’s degree at Howard University, the husband and wife team of Mamie and Kenneth Clark designed a study using dolls to test black children’s ego and self-esteem. In there study, they showed black and white dolls to children to test whether they would respond differently to dolls of different races by asking them which dolls were pretty and nice and which ones were bad. Not surprisingly, the white children included in the study overwhelmingly preferred the white dolls. The Clarks found that two thirds of the black children also preferred the white dolls saying that they were nice and pretty and the black dolls were bad and ugly. When the Clarks asked the black children which doll looked more like themselves, some chose the white dolls, some couldn’t answer and some just broke down in tears. The Clarkes’ concluded from their studies years of existing under the black codes through racial segregation and negative images had damaged many black children’s sense of identity and self esteem.
Thurgood Marshall wisely solicited the Clarks as expert witnesses in Briggs v. Elliott. To prepare for his expert testimony, Kenneth Clark traveled to Summerton, S.C. Using dolls of different colors, he tested the children of Scott’s Branch school to measure how they felt about themselves. He asked the children to show him the nice doll, the bad doll, and the doll that look just like you. Ten of the 16 children said that the brown doll looked bad. The results of these strongly suggested that forced segregation damaged the self-image of African American children in Clarendon County, S.C.
On May 28, 1951, Thurgood Marshall along with Robert Carter, and Spotswood Robinson brought the case before a three-judge panel at the Federal Court house in Charleston, S.C. The lawyers presented the Clarks study and argued that segregated schools harmed black children psychologically and violated the fourteenth Amendment guarantee of equal protection under the law. The three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court found that the schools designated for African Americans were grossly inadequate in terms of buildings transportation and teachers’ salaries when compared to schools provided for whites.
However, two of the judges citing Plessy v. Ferguson held that Separate but equal facilities were constitutional and ruled against the plaintiffs.
The dissenting judge Julius Waring adamantly opposed segregation in public schools. In his dissent he wrote: I am of the opinion that all of the legal guide posts, expert testimony, common sense, and reason points unerringly to the conclusion that the system of segregation in education adopted and practiced in the state of South Carolina must go and go now. Segregation is per se inequality.
Harry Briggs fight against Jim Crow was far from over. Thurgood Marshall and his legal team filed an appeal with the U.S. States Supreme Court.
I’m Julianne Malveaux, President of Bennet College. Joins us tomorrow as we continue to explore standing the shoulders of unsung heroes.
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