‘Seat of Justice’ looks at court case Briggs v. Elliott part of segregation lawsuit

The cast from “The Seat of Justice.”

It is difficult to understate the importance of the Briggs v. Elliott case, though to this day many don’t know much about it.

It was one of five cases consolidated in 1954 for purposes of arguing against segregation before the U.S. Supreme Court, and because a lesser case from Kansas — Brown v. Board of Education — got top billing, the story of the Briggs litigation has fluttered about in the bins of history like a butterfly trying to find an exit.

About 15 years ago, Julian Wiles decided to lift the lid.

Wiles is a playwright, founder and producing artistic director of Charleston Stage. He’s penned lots of plays over the years, some of which reference real life. He likes history. His play “The Seat of Justice” was conceived during the early part of the 2000s. It tells the story of the Briggs case and the many courageous people who risked their lives and livelihoods to advance the cause of democracy.

Wiles conducted research, interviewed many of those who were involved and began writing the first draft in 2001. It was produced for the stage in 2004 and again in 2006. Now Charleston Stage is presenting it again at the Dock Street Theatre, Feb. 17-March 6.

Each time the play is prepared for performance, Wiles tweaks it a bit, honing the many characters, focusing the storyline and emphasizing the metaphor: Only those who help realize progress may assume the “seat of justice.”

Wiles was born in 1952 and grew up on a cotton farm in rural South Carolina, not far from the Clarendon County roads school children traveled.

“I knew a lot about that world, and it was a segregated world,” Wiles said.

The case began in June 1947 with Levi Pearson, a black cotton farmer who agreed to file suit against Clarendon County for its unequal busing policy. But it was thrown out on a technicality when it was discovered that Pearson’s property straddled the county lines and he paid taxes elsewhere. The groundwork for the Briggs case had been laid.

Soon after, with Thurgood Marshall now involved, a new suit was filed, this time by Harry and Eliza Briggs joined by 21 other families. They demanded a bus. One bus to take black children to school. Some of the black kids had to walk for miles while white students were shuttled between home and school on district buses.

Superintendent Roderick Miles Elliott refused the request, arguing that black residents didn’t pay enough taxes to deserve public transportation. He did so, his grandson Joe Elliott said, because he was following “orders from above.” Besides, he was mindful of the can of worms he might open should he agree to the demand. What would stop other black communities from asking for public busing?

R.M. Elliott was a product of his segregated times, Joe Elliott said. “I hate to call him a racist, but that was a racist world.”

In 1949, the NAACP, Rev. Joseph De Laine and Modjeska Monteith Simkins decided to expand the legal action, arguing not only for transportation but for equal treatment generally. To do so, they needed to find people willing to sign a petition. It would entail huge risk, and everybody knew it. As a consequence of his activism, Pearson had lost his cotton gin and been forced to become a subsistence farmer.

Nevertheless, more than 100 people added their names to the petition.

“I think about soldiers going off to war,” Joe Elliott said. “They knew the people back home were safe. Yet these people — Levi Pearson, Harry Briggs, Joseph De Laine — they put their families at risk. They were all vulnerable.”

Their names were circulated throughout Clarendon County. They were blacklisted. They lost jobs. They were subjected to violent attacks and persecution. Whole families were imperiled.

“I can’t imagine how they summoned all this courage,” Elliott said. “It’s unbelievable. And they were just regular people.”

De Laine’s son, Joe De Laine, now 82 and living in Charlotte, said he and his two siblings, Brumit and Ophelia, were well aware of their father’s actions and the risks they entailed.

“We were fully aware of violence that could occur, we were fully trained to use guns to defend ourselves,” said De Laine, who was in his late teens at the time. “We were expected to shoot first and ask questions later.”

Fortunately, they never needed to shoot, though their father did once, after the family relocated to Lake City, and it got them all in big trouble.

In Clarendon County, there were serious threats of violence, De Laine said. The family did not know until some years later that armed black men had secretly arranged to guard the De Laine home at night.

The dangers infused all aspects of existence.

“This was a part of life,” De Laine said. “Of course we knew (my siblings and myself), we were quite aware of the discrepancies that existed in our society in South Carolina. We were also aware of the discrepancies in the schools.” These were discrepancies that were inherently unjust and intolerable and therefore had to be addressed.

The case would have gone before Judge J. Waties Waring of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of South Carolina. But Waring encouraged Marshall to reject the “separate-but-equal” doctrine and argue instead for desegregation.

It was a strategy that both men knew would likely result in a loss, but it would provide the opportunity to appeal and bring the matter before the Supreme Court. Maybe there a victory could be secured.

Briggs was decided by a three-judge panel, including Waring, who ruled against the plaintiffs. Waring issued a famous dissent in which he declared that “segregation is per se inequality.”

After his dissent, Waring was persona non grata in Charleston and quickly moved to New York City. Harry and Eliza Briggs lost their jobs. De Laine received death threats; his church and home were burned.

In October 1955, after De Laine moved to Lake City, he and his family were victims of a drive-by shooting. Hoodlums fired at the De Laine home. De Laine fired back, to mark the car. As a result, he was charged with assault and battery with intent to kill. So he fled South Carolina for good, settling in Buffalo, N.Y., where he organized an AME church.

He never adjusted to New York, his son said. He always wanted to return south, and finally did, settling in Charlotte at the end of his life.

Mattie De Laine, generally a calm and adaptable person, was frightened to death by the prospect of returning to South Carolina, Joe De Laine said of his mother.

The Rev. Joseph A. De Laine died in 1974. In 2000, he was cleared of all charges relating to the shooting incident. In 2002, he was posthumously awarded a Congressional Gold Medal.

Wiles said his play attempts to pay tribute not just to De Laine and Waring and Marshall, but to the many people who joined the fight against segregation by adding their names to the Briggs petition. Without their efforts, efforts that often came at a steep price, Brown v. Board of Education would not have happened, not the way it did, not when it did.

De Laine’s son, Joe De Laine, is expected to attend the opening-night performance of “The Seat of Justice.” De Laine and Joe Elliott will attend the special Clarendon County Day performance at 2 p.m. Feb. 20. This performance honors the descendants of petitioners and participants in the Briggs litigation.

History is brought alive in the theater. And the lesson Wiles draws from the Briggs case? “Evil triumphed (during Jim Crow) because too many good people did too little,” Wiles said. But when enough people step forward, despite the risks, change is possible, monumental change.

Reach Adam Parker at 843-937-5902. Follow him at facebook.com/aparkerwriter.