Fifty Years Ago…

 

Section 5377 of the Code of Laws of South Carolina of 1942: “It shall be unlawful for pupils of one race to attend the schools provided by boards of trustees for persons of another race.”

Fifty years ago, yesterday, The School District of Greenville County became one of the last school districts in one of the last states to comply with the “spirit” of the Supreme Court Case Brown v Board of Education, Topeka, Kansas.  It had only taken sixteen years to accomplish this compliance.

1954’s Brown v Board included a South Carolina case filed by then Civil Rights lawyer, future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall on behalf of Harry and Eliza Briggs and 20 other families living in Summerton, SC, a small town in Clarendon County.  Filed in 1947, Briggs v Elliott challenged school segregation in Clarendon County, South Carolina.  It was the first case filed of five cases combined under the Brown umbrella

Unanimously, the Justices found that separate was inherently unequal and that “public school segregation was unconstitutional.” They also found segregation “fostered feelings of inferiority among black children that could harm their educational futures.”

Brown overthrew Plessy v Ferguson’s “Separate but Equal”, a railroad case from the 1890s that had been applied to education.  Mandated segregation in South Carolina was over…defacto segregation wasn’t.

I used the word “spirit” earlier because for sixteen years South Carolina lawmakers systematically attempted to put off the inevitable by increasing spending on black schools, implementing “pseudo” freedom of choice, and an end-run with what became known as “token” integration.

State Senator Strom Thurmond of Dixiecrat fame helped to pen what became known as the Southern Manifesto, pledging, along with one hundred other federal lawmakers, the intent to resist integration as far as the law would allow.

It seemed South Carolina and other states, mostly Southern, were intent on being deliberate rather than speedy when instructed by the Supreme Court to integrate their schools “with all deliberate speed” in 1954.

With a Mississippi Federal Court ruling, segregation ended over a long weekend in Greenville County on February 17, 1970, with the busing of sixty percent of the black school populations to various schools distant from their own neighborhoods.  Only ten percent of white children were bused.  Five hundred educators found themselves cleaning out their desks and moving to different desks in different schools as well.  This was done to reflect the racial makeup of the county, 80% white, 20% black.

What had been black high schools, some quite new became middle schools or closed that weekend.  These centers of pride for many communities, like Sterling High or Lincoln High, were now empty; only living on in the memories of many people of color.

I was a second semester junior in college at the time and not very concerned about the politics of my state.  The next year, my senior year, I would find myself an unpaid assistant baseball coach while doing my student teaching at a local high school.  It would be my first-time interacting with black students and athletes.  It would probably be some of their first interactions with white teachers and coaches.  Somehow we survived.

From all I can glean from friends and fellow educators who taught during the period, the change was relatively peaceful.  I imagine there was some selective memory loss but unlike other states, few buses, if any, were pelted with rocks. There were no rabid white crowds shouting expletives to little schoolgirls. The governor did not stand on the schoolhouse steps shouting, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

Still…I can’t imagine what those thousands of students were thinking at the time as they rode school buses to new locations.  I’m unable to fathom the fear of the unknown that prevailed, both black and white.  I can only imagine what might have gone on in restrooms, locker rooms, in the parking lot, on buses…out of range of teacher’s and administrator’s ears.

By the time I became a full-time teacher and coach in 1973, I found race relations still raw and contentious.  Generally, the question of race relations simmered just beneath the surface on briefly exposing itself.  There were just enough brief flareups to remind us.  Beliefs don’t go gently into the night just because judges tell them to.

For years we had been indoctrinated to believe races should be kept separate as a benefit to both, and then in the blink of an eye it was over…or was it?

There were still arguments made and old white men continued to try and find ways around the law.  Court cases would still be heard, especially over busing.  Isolated areas would still attempt to hang on to the old ways.  Affluent white folk found another way to be separate.

One hundred and thirty-four private schools and academies opened in South Carolina during the period, one hundred and thirty-one were opened to whites only.  Many still exist today, many still are all white with names featuring Lee, Davis or Calhoun.

Over fifty thousand white students fled to private schools and today one in seven public schools in South Carolina are considered “highly segregated” still.  “Separate but equal” seems to have a firm foothold all over the South and it appears the Secretary of Education is intent on strengthening its foothold nationwide while weakening an already weakened public school system.

I often hear or read, “We need to move on.  That was so long ago.  I don’t understand why it is always about race.”  I find it is often people of my race who make these comments.  The same people who insist their heritage is under attack when certain flags are removed from federal buildings.

I point out that Jim Crow was still entrenched during the years of my youth well into my college days.  As I reach a major birthday in a month and a half, I find that 1970 doesn’t seem that long ago.  If it is during my lifetime it can’t be that long ago.

I remember the signs stating, “White’s Only.”  I remember fire hoses, German Shepards and burning buses.  I didn’t fight for my Civil Rights, I didn’t have to.  I’m sure for those who fought for their Civil Rights…continue to fight for their Civil Rights, it seems like only yesterday.

Addendum 

According to various accounts, although Brown resulted in a legal victory against segregation, it was a costly victory for those associated with the Briggs case.

Reverend Joseph De Laine, the generally acknowledged leader of Summerton’s African-American community at the time, was fired from his post as principal at a local school in Silver. His wife Mattie was also fired from her position as a teacher at Scott’s Branch school, as were all the other signers of the original petition.

De Laine’s church was also burned and he moved to Buffalo, New York in 1955 after surviving an attempted drive-by shooting.  He never returned to South Carolina.

Harry and Eliza Briggs, on behalf of whose children the suit was filed, both lost their jobs in what was called “economic retribution.”  They both left South Carolina.

After death threats and by a joint resolution of the South Carolina House of Representatives, Federal Judge Walter Waring was forced to leave South Carolina for good.  He had sided with the petitioners.

An interesting article I just read, https://www.greenvilleonline.com/get-access/?return=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.greenvilleonline.com%2Fstory%2Fnews%2F2020%2F02%2F17%2Fdesegregation-1-out-of-7-south-carolina-schools-highly-segregated%2F2843394001%2F

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Don Miller is a retired educator and athletic coach.  He writes on various subjects using various genres.  His author’s page can be accessed at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM

The image is from “A New Wave of School Integration”, The Century Foundation, https://tcf.org/content/report/a-new-wave-of-school-integration/?session=1

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Sources

https://brownvboard.org/content/brown-case-briggs-v-elliott

http://www.scequalizationschools.org/briggs-v-elliott.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Briggs_v._Elliott

 

Is it Always About Race?

 

The question is not mine although I mentally argue the subject with myself quite often.  The person who asked the question pointed out, “You seem to be obsessed by race” meaning race relations.  He is intelligent, both well-read and with common sense.  Because of his intelligence and his view of the world, I had to wonder if he might be correct.  If I am obsessed, what about people of color.

I have been told, “We must move on.  No one alive today has owned slaves or picked cotton as a slaveMove on!”  Having picked cotton as a small child I might dispute that assertion except I was “paid” with a BB Bat occasionally and was not living in a home that sharecropping was an only vocation available.  Okay, for argument’s sake I’ll give you that assertion but would add the word legally…but then there are those prisons who still rent out inmates for profit, the Angola Plantation of modern times.

I would also ask you to shift your thinking to the years of my lifetime.  I began life in the Jim Crow South.  The Brown case that overturned Plessy v Ferguson landed like a wet cow patty in my part of the world in 1954.  Being four at the time, I didn’t notice.  I was much more interested in Tonka Toys, recreating the Gunfight at the Ok Corral, and defeating the Imperial Japanese Army with little green soldiers than worrying about a court case I had no understanding of.  The youngster of color I played with didn’t notice either…until 1956 when we both went off to our still “separate but equal” schools.

For the next fourteen years South Carolina, along with the rest of the South, drug their collective feet, rushing like runaway snails toward complete integration, kicking and screaming all the way.  Southerners heard “deliberate” and ignored “speed” in “with all deliberate speed”1, first ignoring it, then instituting “token” integration before going the whole hog and integrating all public schools in 1970…that was in my little piece of the South…again, during my lifetime.  The last public school to integrate was in Mississippi in 2016, sixty-two years after Brown.  Yes, for some folk, it is still about race.

Desegregation was not well received, integration even worse.  Our collective “white” anger was not just limited to the South.  Some of the most racist areas still exist, and they are not restricted to the states seceding in late 1860 and early 1861.  Boston, Massachusetts, for instance, didn’t integrate their schools until 1976, with rioting in addition to kicking and screaming.

During my lifetime, I have very vivid memories of people who made it about race.  Memories of our “kicking and screaming” in the form of bombs blowing up churches, burning buses, election workers buried under a dam, firehoses and Billy clubs, what was once human beings hung from a tree, and police dogs.  If I have those hateful memories of events during my lifetime…what about people of color?  Should we all ignore these memories or should we approach it head-on and accept our racist past by getting rid of it in our racist present and banning it from our future?

I’ve specified years beginning in 1954.  My lifetime.  Brown in ’54, Little Rock Nine in ’57, the Greensboro sit-ins in ’60, a bomb in Birmingham in ’63, Dr. King’s assassination and a hell of a lot more in ’68, Mother Emmanuel in 2015, Senator Steve King in 2019 wondering when “white nationalist and white supremacist” became offensive words.

I jumped a few years for expediency and just listed a few to make a point.  There are seventy-four million Baby Boomers of all races alive today who have lived through Jim Crow or institutional racism in education, the justice system, prisons, housing, jobs, voting, just to name a few.  Those memories are real as is the discrimination many still face in 2019.

What discrimination?  Before you say, “But….”  I’ve researched the data and you can too.  I’m not going to do it for you.  The numbers are skewed for a reason.  You should research if you still believe in science and data…if not, please go elsewhere and harass some other poor soul.

With forethought, those who came before us, systematically placed restrictions on people they considered the other.  Even “Po white trash” facilitate their own dilemmas by allowing and even assisting in white supremacy.  The least racist of us perpetuate the system covertly because “Those are the lessons we grew up with and learned.”

“But….”  I know.  You have Black or Hispanic friends, maybe po white trash friends too.  Jeffery Dahmer had friends he didn’t eat.  He was still a serial cannibal.

Stereotypes still exist and people around me perpetuate them all the time.  I have been guilty of taking the path of least resistance…and maybe even perpetuating.  No longer.  If we are going to end inequalities in the system who should heft the banner?  Those who are still unequal in the eyes of the ruling class?  White supremacy will not end on its own nor will it end by the efforts of people of color alone.  White supremacy must end with the efforts of whites.

“But….”  I know, there will always be racist people.  Laws passed will not make racism and white supremacy magically disappear.  People with racist attitudes do not need to be in positions of power ala Senator Steve King.  They don’t need to be bosses, policemen or educators either.  It is up to the white race to call out those of our own who are.

I do realize that every action or slight doesn’t have to be about race and there are some who just want to make “everything” about race…certainly our media it would seem.  Until we truly believe, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men (people) are created equal”, it will be about race…or bigotry…or misogyny…or…?  Equal must be equal…it cannot be by degrees, by social class or by race.”

Dr. King would have turned ninety-one today had he lived.  One of his most famous quotes, from one of his most famous speeches, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” is oft-repeated. It is a substantial quote but in the light of today’s cultural atmosphere, I believe the final paragraph of the speech is more relevant.  Speaking of freedom, Dr. King said,

“And when this (freedom) happens, and when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men, and white men, Jews, and Gentiles, Protestants, and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: ‘Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.’”2

I don’t know if I will see true freedom for all in my lifetime.  I doubt it.  I pray my daughter and grandchildren see it.  A time when everyone’s children “will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin (or religion, gender, etc.) but by the content of their character.”  

1 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954)

2 Source: Martin Luther King, Jr., I Have A Dream: Writings and Speeches that Changed the World, ed. James Melvin Washington (San Francisco: Harper, 1986), 102-106.

The image is from Richmond 2Day http://richmond2day.com/city-host-dr-martin-luther-king-jr-day-program-encourages-residents-volunteer/mlk/

Further musings may be accessed at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM