U.S. Eastern District Federal Court - Briggs v. Elliott, 83 Broad Street

The unjust principle of “separate but equal,” sanctioned by the infamous Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, took many forms—arguably the most profound of which was its manifestation in the public school systems across the South. Despite its unconvincing pretensions, the accommodations made for African American students were undeniably separate but by no measure equal. While white students benefited from professional teachers, the most up-to-date textbooks, and comfortable building accommodations, Black schoolchildren by and large were denied many of these assets, which are now considered essential for a proper education. One of the most egregious impediments, however, was the fact that publicly-financed school buses ferried white students to and from school each day of the school week while no arrangements for the transportation of Black children were made whatsoever. Instead, Black families sometimes carpooled with one another, but more often than not it meant that Black students had to travel to school on foot.

In an effort to counteract this injustice, in the sleepy town of Summerton in Clarendon county, Harry Briggs, Jr., a gas station attendant, and his wife Eliza, a maid, pooled their financial resources together with twenty-one families in order to purchase a bus to transport their children to and from school. While initially successful, continuing to finance the maintenance of the vehicle proved very difficult. Ultimately, Harry Briggs, Jr. petitioned the superintendent of the school district, R.M. Elliott, to provide busing for Black families. This proposal was promptly rejected.  The local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) then began to circulate a legal petition to redress this grievance, and eventually over one hundred citizens in the county signed the petition. In the ensuing legal challenge, Briggs was listed as the plaintiff and Elliott was listed as the defendant.

The lawsuit was held in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of South Carolina in Charleston, South Carolina in the November of 1950. A panel of three judges, including Judge John J. Parker, Judge George Bell Timmerman, Jr., and lifelong Charlestonian native and College of Charleston alum Judge J. Waites Waring, presided. Having presided over a similar civil rights case—Elmore v. Rice—several years prior, in which he decided in favor of the plaintiff and effectively ended the white primary throughout South Carolina, Waring earned a notorious reputation as a so-called race traitor among the white community. Notable South Carolina politicians openly denigrated him in public speeches and private citizens even went so far as to send malicious letters to him and his wife. Years later, Waring confided to a friend that it was his desire for his beloved hometown to one day “see over the fog of prejudice which has engulfed this land of ours since the fall of the Confederacy.”

Although the case was originally intended to simply expand bus access to include Black students (albeit on segregated buses), Waring convinced the lawyer who would be arguing in favor of the plaintiff, Thurgood Marshall, that the prosecution should go even further:  this case should strike at the very notion of “separate but equal,” which had been legally enshrined by Plessy v. Ferguson. Originally hesitant, Marshall decided that Waring was indeed right.  Consequently, the case was a foregone conclusion: the panel of judges decided on a two-to-one basis in favor of the defendant,with Judge Waring being the only opposition vote.

Perhaps providentially, however, this allowed for the civil rights attorneys to appeal this case even higher up the federal court system. Eventually, Briggs v. Elliott was consolidated along with four other civil rights cases around the nation—including Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. Combined, these five cases would be brought before the Supreme Court and together would result in a decision invalidating the very idea of separate but equal and mandating the desegregation of public schools as soon as possible.

After the Brown ruling, Judge Waring presciently acknowledged that “[w]e don’t have a Negro problem here in the South; we have a white problem.” Consequently, after the ruling, as Waring expected, there was considerable white public backlash, with legislators and educators employing legal maneuvers to impede integration at all costs. Lamentably, that “fog of prejudice” that Waring alluded to so many years ago still casts a shameful shroud over America to this very day.  For such prescient insights into civil rights issues, the College of Charleston has recently posthumously honored Judge Waring with one of its most illustrious honors, the Founders’ Medal, which recognizes his undying commitment to ensuring a just and equal society for all.

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83 Broad Street, Charleston, SC 29401