Justice for All
And so it was, until one man stood up to the powerful white elite in this small southern community—and helped spark a civil rights revolution. Half a century ago in the Clarendon County town of Summerton, an African-American minister named J.A. De Laine made a simple request for a school bus so black children would no longer have to endure such indignity. His plea turned into a lawsuit against local officials and became one of five cases collectively known as Brown v. Board of Education, which resulted in the Supreme Court decision that ended the "separate but equal" doctrine in America's public schools 50 years ago this week.
But for all the gains to flow from the Brown case—the end of statutory discrimination in housing, employment and public transportation—the battle for equality in Clarendon County and beyond is unfinished. "In some ways it's still 1954 in Summerton," says B.B. De Laine, 66, a retired teacher from Charlotte, N.C., and one of the late Reverend De Laine's three children. "The last 50 years passed this town by."
In the late 1940s Summerton was no different from hundreds of other southern towns. Blacks were relegated to their own restaurants, bathrooms and water fountains. "Whites stayed in their community, blacks in theirs," says B.B. Black men worked as sharecroppers on farms owned by whites; their wives toiled as housekeepers or maids. Lynchings were not uncommon in the area, and racial harassment was a part of everyday life. "At the dry cleaner one morning I was dropping off clothes for my mother—'Mrs. Mattie De Laine,' " recalls B.B.'s older brother Joe, now 70, a retired cancer researcher. "I was yelled at and told never to call her that. It was 'Mattie.' "
Nowhere were the inequities more glaring than in schools. In the early '50s, three-quarters of Clarendon County's 32,215 residents were black, but the lion's share of the education budget went to whites—$179 for every white child, versus $43 for blacks. Whites' schools were modern brick buildings with indoor plumbing; for blacks they were "not painted, just raw wood, with potbelly stoves," recalls Joe. "In the morning it would be freezing, and I'd have to come in early to get the fire going." The few textbooks were discards from white schools, stained, tattered and stamped "For Use by Coloreds Only."
In 1947, Reverend De Laine, a college-educated civil rights activist, was outraged that the county provided 30 school buses for white children and none for blacks. As the founder of the area's NAACP chapter, he had seen local blacks struggling to transport their children to school—even in a broken-down bus that had once been used as a chicken coop. After one failed lawsuit to win a new bus from the all-white school board, Reverend De Laine consulted NAACP lawyers and eventually organized parents into a lawsuit demanding not just a bus but desegregated schools. "This case wouldn't have happened without him," says Beatrice Rivers, 67, one of the original plaintiffs. "These weren't educated people. You needed someone like him."
The case, called Briggs v. Elliott (for Harry Briggs, a black service-station attendant who was the first of 20 plaintiffs, and Roderick W. Elliott, the white chair of the school board), was joined to four similar lawsuits, known collectively by the name of the Topeka, Kansas, case—Brown v. Board of Education. In 1952 it was first argued before the Supreme Court by, among others, NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall. Then, on May 17, 1954, the Court issued its historic ruling, holding that separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. "That our government said, 'This is wrong,' was more than had ever been done before," says Joe. "It was like a sigh of relief."
Summerton's white community was outraged. One plaintiff was evicted from her house; another lost his job as an auto mechanic. Still others were forced to travel just to buy groceries. "These petitioners had courage that I can't imagine," says integration proponent Joseph Elliott, 64, grandson of Roderick Elliott. "They were heroes."
The De Laines were singled out. Their modest home was vandalized, crosses were burned on the front lawn, and "rocks, tomatoes and ketchup came through the front glass," says B.B., then a high schooler. In '55, Reverend De Laine's church was destroyed by arson. "We have decided to give you 10 days to leave," read one threat. "We have made plans to move you if it takes dynamite to do so." The minister kept a shotgun at the ready ("Daddy's philosophy was that God helps those who help themselves," says B.B.), and when a earful of men shot at the house, he fired back. Afraid for the reverend's life, supporters hustled the family out of town. De Laine never lived in Summerton again; he died in 1974 in Charlotte, N.C. "That was about as close as he could get back to home," says B.B.
While De Laine's battle for equality took a heavy toll, all three of his children reaped its benefits. In addition to Joe and B.B., both college-educated, their sister, Ophelia Gona, 67, earned a doctorate, became the first African-American woman to serve in the Peace Corps and retired after a long career teaching anatomy at New Jersey Medical School in Newark. But in Summerton today, too many dreams remain deferred. While officially sanctioned discrimination is history and blacks are represented in local government, racial separation remains largely the norm. In the wake of Brown, whites have all but abandoned public education. At Scott's Branch, the local public high school, more than 98 percent of the 500 students are black, and test scores are among the lowest in the state. Just up the road, private, nearly all-white Clarendon Hall, opened in '65, recently boasted the county's top SAT scores. "It's not hard to imagine how segregation was," says Tela Brown, 16, a black student at Scott's Branch, "because it's still here."
Even so, among some local young people, there is not only hope for the future but pride in the past. "When you mention segregation, all you ever hear about is Brown v. Board of Education in Topeka," says Michael Congleton, 18, another black student at Scott's Branch, who intends to become a lawyer. "But it started in Summerton. It's our legacy. And I think the world should know."
Susan Schindehette. Kristin Harmel in Summerton