Sixty years ago three judges convened in Charleston to ponder school desegregation, and today state law professionals gather in the same spot -- at the same courthouse, even in the same courtroom -- to ponder that case's significance.
Lower courts in the Briggs v. Elliott case upheld the practice of separating school children by skin color, but one judge's impassioned dissent laid the groundwork for the federal Supreme Court's eventual reversal of that decision in the Brown v. Board of Education ruling. Today, a group of legal experts, including S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean H. Toal, former U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings and U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel, gather at the Broad Street courthouse to discuss and celebrate the landmark case.
"I think it's a fair question to say, why do we care about a case 60 years ago with a judge long retired and long deceased?" Gergel said. He's also happy to tell you this answer:
The Briggs case introduced cutting-edge social science testimony from a doctor who studied children's reactions to black and white dolls and observed the negative stigma toward the black dolls that segregation created. The same doctor traveled to Clarendon County, the school district in question, and interviewed children there.
"It just wasn't in the abstract that African American children were injured but that these children were injured," Gergel said.
The Briggs case also included what some historians consider the most influential dissent in American history. U.S. District Judge J. Waties Waring's opinion made him a social pariah in town, Gergel said, to the extent that his enemies burned a cross in his yard and lobbed a brick through his window.
Gergel asked to put the paper from that original dissent in a glass case at the courthouse but later learned that it rests in the National Archives in Washington. The document returns to Charleston on exhibit as part of today's colloquium, which is a continuing education program designed for attorneys.
"We're doing it because the subject deserves it," Gergel said. "We're marking an important moment not, just in this court or this state but in this country."