South Carolina has developed a reputation for being a relatively genteel place, and that "veneer of politeness" could be why the state has not received its due by civil rights historians.
Brian Hicks writes more about Brown v. Board of Education and Judge Waties Waring's contribution to civil rights. In News
This idea was raised during a panel discussion Friday inside the federal courtroom where Waties Waring presided over the Briggs v. Elliott case in 1951.
The panel, called "Charleston and Educational Equality: The Historic Role of Briggs in the Brown Decision," was organized by the College of Charleston's Jon Hale, a professor of education history, and hosted by District Judge Richard Gergel, an enthusiastic fan of Waring and student of civil rights history.
Joining Gergel on the panel were historian Jack Bass; the Rev. Joseph Darby, presiding elder of the Beaufort District of the AME Church; and Joseph De Laine Jr., son of the Rev. Joseph De Laine, organizer of the black community in Clarendon County that challenged the unequal treatment of black and white schoolchildren in a case that ultimately led to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
Bass spoke of progressive judges in the 4th and 5th circuits who helped break down Jim Crow, and of South Carolina's "veneer of politeness" that tended to dampen fears of violence in South Carolina during the heroic period of the civil rights movement (1954-1965).
Gergel, as well as observer John White, dean of libraries at the College of Charleston, pointed out that violence and terror were acutely felt by blacks in South Carolina, despite the state's reputation for civility.
"The larger national narrative tends to ignore South Carolina's role," Hale said before the event. Yet the state's contributions are significant.
In 1954, Sarah Flemming refused to give up her seat on a Columbia bus 17 months before Rosa Parks' protest, De Laine said. And blacks lived in fear of lynchings that often went unpunished.
"South Carolina has a habit of pushing these things under the rug," he said.
Darby drew attention to the central role of the black church and the balancing act experienced by many blacks - the need to push for positive change while at the same time protecting families and finances.
Gergel reminded the gathering of the effort by segregationists to get the NAACP to reveal their membership lists so blacks could be punished for their activism. The petitioners who made the Briggs case possible all suffered forms of retribution, he said.
The Briggs case was one of five that became part of the landmark Brown case. Waring had encouraged Thurgood Marshall to challenge directly the "separate-but-equal" doctrine of the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case, which the famed NAACP lawyer and future Supreme Court justice did, somewhat reluctantly, Gergel said. Its plaintiffs lost. Waring's famous dissent, the result of years of thinking about the issue, held that "segregation is per se inequality." It had profound ramifications.
"Every other judge was running away from these cases," Gergel said. "Judge Waring was running toward it."
A second public forum on civil rights and education in South Carolina is scheduled for 5 p.m. Thursday in the College of Charleston Science Center Auditorium, 202 Calhoun St.
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