saga sidebar header image Mr Mrs Briggs clarendon schools.jpg (copy)

A tribute to Briggs v. Elliott, a key case in the fight for school desegregation, hangs in the old Summerton High, now administrative offices of the Clarendon 1 School District. Wade Spees/Staff

It’s a simple question.

For years, potential federal judges have been tossed the same softball at their Senate confirmation hearings: Do you support the United States Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education?

That unanimous 1954 ruling — which turned 65 on Friday — was the court’s most monumental decision of the 20th century. By declaring segregated schools unconstitutional, Chief Justice Earl Warren doomed Jim Crow laws and paved the way for the civil rights movement.

Usually, the inevitable Brown question gives candidates a chance to look good. It’s not partisan, and it’s not controversial. Every conservative member of the current Supreme Court praises the case. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito credit the decision with guaranteeing the equal rights of all citizens.

Even Brett Kavanaugh, in his contentious confirmation hearing, called Brown “the single greatest moment in Supreme Court history.”

But in the past year, many of President Donald Trump’s judicial nominees have refused to give an opinion on Brown — and that insults the legacy of the South Carolina residents who led the charge to make this country live up to its declaration that “all men are created equal.”

The decision in Brown was based on five lawsuits that challenged the constitutionality of segregated schools, the first of which was Briggs v. Elliott. The case originated in Clarendon County when a preacher and principal named Joseph DeLaine asked the NAACP to file suit against his school district for providing buses to white schools, but not for black students.

For his efforts, DeLaine suffered years of indignity. His Clarendon County home burned to the ground while local firefighters watched the blaze, claiming it sat just outside their jurisdiction. Later, his church was torched in similar fashion.

Eventually, racists began shooting at DeLaine's home. When he shot back — on the advice of local police — his attackers filed charges and he was forced to flee South Carolina. For years, the state considered him a fugitive.

The plaintiffs in the Briggs case hardly fared better. Many of them were threatened with violence, lost their jobs and had their credit cut off at stores. Harry Briggs, who worked at the mayor’s service station, was given a carton of cigarettes as a holiday bonus — and was immediately fired. On Christmas Eve.

These people suffered not for their own benefit, but to make this country a better place. And it minimizes their monumental efforts when potential judges are less than supportive of a court decision that basically declared it wrong to give some people fewer rights simply because of the color of their skin.

This backing away from Brown started last April, when Wendy Vitter — a Trump nominee to a district court seat in Louisiana — said she didn’t want to comment on cases that were “correctly decided and which I might disagree with.”

Disagree?

Since then, nearly a dozen judges (not to mention some Justice Department appointees) have said much the same thing. Most recently, Neomi Rao — Trump’s pick to replace Justice Kavanaugh on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. circuit — called Brown “important” but refused to say if she supported it.

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Before this, the last guy who dissed Brown in his Senate confirmation hearing was Robert Bork, who famously did not get appointed to the Supreme Court. But these days, that’s apparently not an automatic disqualification.

Times are changing, and not for the better. A new study from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA and the Center for Education and Civil Rights at Pennsylvania State University says the intention of Brown is at “grave risk.” In recent years, lawsuits have chipped away at civil rights and voting rights.

That's not only wrong, it’s un-American.

Refusing to endorse Brown could be a result of candidates not being prepped well or laughably uneducated about the federal judicial system. Or, it could be a wink and a nod to white nationalists who foolishly and erroneously think their skin color makes them superior.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee that interviews these candidates, says the process has become too politicized by both sides. He’s right, but that's no excuse to be less than supportive of Brown.

Anyone who believes there are caveats to equal justice by definition doesn’t deserve a seat on the bench.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.

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