by Ophelia De Laine Gona. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press. 216 pages. ISBN: 9781570039805.
Reviewed by Christopher Malone, Department of Political Science, Pace University. Email: cmalone [at] pace.edu.
On October 10th, 2000, forty-five years to the day after he fled the state fearing for his life, Reverend Joseph Armstrong De Laine was posthumously granted a full pardon from an assault and battery charge with the intent to kill by the State of South Carolina. De Laine’s “crime” was in fact nothing more than a heroic act of self-defense: after years of agitating for equal public schools in Clarendon County – and months of direct threats on his and his family’s lives by whites opposed to integration – Reverend De Laine took his shotgun out on that fateful October night in 1955, sent his wife to a neighbor’s house, crouched in the dark, and waited for the car filled with the white mob who had earlier shot up his house to return. When it did, De Laine fired two rounds into the Lake City night air. Both of them hit their mark, injuring two of the passengers. Within an hour, Reverend De Laine – a tall, charismatic church leader and school principal who had spent the previous eight years fighting for justice for black children and their families – found himself a fugitive from it as he sped north from South Carolina, never to return again.
The story of the events leading up to Reverend De Laine’s flight from South Carolina is the subject of THE DAWN OF DESEGREGATION: J.A. DE LAINE AND BRIGGS V. ELLIOTT, a short but rather engrossing memoir written by De Laine’s daughter, Ophelia De Laine Gona. The larger context for Gona’s rendering of her father is the origin of BRIGGS V. ELLIOTT, the first of five companion cases that became the landmark BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION (1954) decision. So much is known about BROWN – the plaintiffs, the impact of the ruling and the logic behind it, the role played by the NAACP, the use of the “doll tests,” and so on. The story of BRIGGS is also known, albeit to a much lesser extent. Gona’s memoir fills in much-needed details about the community from which the case originated. It is an account of an unlikely series of actions, crowded with many firsthand depictions, by a poor, rural, black farming community that risked virtually everything they had to confront the evils of Jim Crow in the isolated and insular world of post-war South Carolina. If that description sounds like a Hollywood movie trailer, then so be it: Gona’s narrative could serve as the basis for a darn good screen play. The story and its cast of characters are that compelling. More importantly, I think, DAWN provides historians, legal scholars, political scientists, social movement theorists and others with some fresh new pavement on the well-worn roads of the Civil Rights Movement. It should also secure Reverend Joseph Armstrong De Laine’s rightful place as one of the great civil rights leaders of the 20th century.
Gona’s story begins with the realities of inequality in segregated South Carolina and a seemingly simple request: that black children be afforded the same bus transportation services enjoyed by white [*48] children across the state. In rural Clarendon County, some students walked 8-10 miles one way to get to school. Parents and students met to plot out strategy and then sought the assistance of the NAACP. Reverend De Laine, a community leader through his work as school principal and pastor for the AME church, was elected as their spokesman. In 1947, the group first filed a petition to the county school board and eventually a lawsuit (LEVI PEARSON V. CLARENDON COUNTY AND SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 26) in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of South Carolina which contended that equal bus services should be provided to black children.
The PEARSON case never made it to trial. Gona explains that a controversy erupted over the plaintiff Levi Pearson’s residence and whether he actually lived in the school district. One day before the case was to be heard, Judge Waties Waring, Thurgood Marshall – who had come from national headquarters to argue the case – asked for and was granted a dismissal (p.36). De Laine and the rest of the community were dismayed. But they regrouped and spent the better part of the next year fighting to reintroduce the bus transportation case.
A second shocker was soon to come. By March of 1949, the residents of Clarendon had grown impatient. On March 8th, Harold Boulware of the local NAACP wrote to Reverend De Laine indicating that Thurgood Marshall would hold a meeting on the 12th of that month to “map out plans for school action” (p.44). Rather than go forward with the bus transportation case, however, Marshall announced that the NAACP was pulling the case altogether. He immediately met the wrath of the community. However, as Gona writes, "Mr. Marshall was not fazed. He had been in circumstances far more intimidating. Calmly he elaborated on the NAACP’s decision and explained that school bus transportation was only an isolated part of the unfair separate-but-equal system. What was needed, he said, was an attack on the entire system, and that was the approach the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund had decided to take" (p.45).
While Reverend De Laine and the rest of the community might have been disappointed by the NAACP’s decision, it should not have come as that much of a surprise. Some context to Gona’s account might be useful here. By 1949, the NAACP was far along in a long-term strategy to dismantle school segregation. Marshall and his colleagues had established an assault on the “separate but equal” doctrine in two phases. The first phase meant going after the “equal” prong of the doctrine by securing rather obvious victories. In 1938, the NAACP won its challenge against the Missouri Law School in MISSOURI EX REL. GAINES V. CANADA. Missouri Law School not only denied African Americans admission, but had been sending black students to other states for law school instead of providing one of its own. In 1950, one year after Marshall visited Clarendon County to deliver the bad news about the bus transportation case, the NAACP won two more important victories in this first phase of the strategy: SWEATT V. PAINTER (1950) and MCLAURIN V.OKLAHOMA STATE REGENTS (1950). In the former, the Court held that the University of Texas’ black law school violated the Fourteenth Amendment because it did not provide equal access to a quality law [*49] education. The decision was unique in that it turned partly on “intangible” factors in the debate around the equality of education such as “reputation” of the institution and its faculty, and the “prestige” that comes with graduating from the UT Law School at Austin. In MCLAURIN, the Court ruled that providing George McLaurin with separate accommodations within the physical space of the doctoral program at the University Oklahoma violated the Fourteenth Amendment because it imposed a psychological badge of inferiority upon him.
Thus, by 1949, Marshall and the NAACP were already moving on to Phase Two of their strategy, the assault on the “separate” prong of the doctrine by declaring that segregation in the field of education was inherently unconstitutional. However, they needed test cases that fit the strategy. While De Laine and the others expressed their disappointment at the loss of the bus transportation case, all was not lost: Marshall and the NAACP agreed that it would accept a case from Clarendon on school equality if three criteria were met: 1) only one school district could be involved; 2) the district had to have both white and black schools for comparison; and 3) the plaintiffs had to be residents of the school district (p.47).
That summer, the people of Clarendon made the fateful choice to take the NAACP’s offer and transition from a grievance over bus services to the more general issue of equal educational facilities. Gona dramatically portrays a June 8th meeting in which Reverend De Laine first refused to become the leader of the group on the case, and then (ostensibly) reluctantly agreed to serve. In actuality, “the meeting on June 8 was flawlessly orchestrated” (p.57). De Laine and a few of his compatriots had staged the whole thing. Toward the end of the meeting, De Laine gave a rousing speech in which he urged the community to stick with him through the hard times no doubt to come. “If I take the leadership, you have to stick with me and fight all the way to the Supreme Court,” he bellowed (p.57). De Laine was instrumental in securing 20 petitioners for the case; the NAACP promised the legal guidance. The community thus agreed to go forward with its historic lawsuit.
Argument for BRIGGS V. ELLIOTT, which originally sought equal education facilities for white and black children, was set for November 1950. At the pre-trial hearing on November 17th, Judge Waties Waring --who had recently struck the South Carolina White Primary law, leading to a Time Magazine article in August of 1948 aptly titled “South Carolina: The Man they Love to Hate” -- informed the NAACP that it would probably win the case. Yet, because the case did not call for the dismantling of segregated schools per se, Waring argued it would be a minor victory. Accounts differ on the actions Waring actually took to inform the NAACP of this. According to Gona, Waring “tacitly” let the NAACP know at that meeting that they were taking the wrong approach. By one account, however, Waring had reached a prior secret agreement with Walter White of the national NAACP during visits to New York to take a case overturning segregation in the public schools. Waring might have even called Marshall directly to give him this message (see Botsch). Whatever the real story is, the NAACP withdrew the original case from the docket. In December 1950 plans were laid to introduce a new and much more ambitious challenge – a full challenge to separate educational facilities throughout [*50] the United States that would use Clarendon County as the test case.
Gona offers just a brief synopsis of the verdicts in the BRIGGS and BROWN decisions, which is fine, since the value of her work lies in her depiction of events closer to home. She writes that, amidst the Briggs decisions in the courts, the State of South Carolina – possibly seeing the writing on the wall – undertook the most radical and elaborate equalization process of black schools in the state’s history (if not the history of the entire country). “Determined to prevent the horrifying situation of a six-year old black boy sitting at a desk next to a six-year old white girl, South Carolina’s lawmakers moved rapidly to equalize school facilities. Proceeds from a newly approved 3 percent sales tax financed a massive school improvement program” (p.152). Over the next three years, the state would commit $100 million to building and improving schools, of which about $75 million went to black schools.
At the same time, angry whites in Clarendon who sustained the livelihoods of many in the black community sought to intimidate them through economic means. As early as 1949, members of the black community were being fired from their jobs. The ability to borrow money for things like share cropping was cut off. Physical violence soon followed, and at least two black members of the community lost their lives. After Reverend De Laine took leadership of the group in the summer of that year, he was fired from his position as principal of one of the district’s schools. As time wore on, more threats and intimidation took place. But the community resisted and endured. In 1950, De Laine and his family were moved to Lake City by the AME church. But the threats followed him there and intensified. His former house in Summertown was burned down. In October 1955 his church was burned down too. Five months after the 1955 BROWN II decision mandated that every school district in the country must desegregate “with all deliberate speed,” Reverend J.A. De Laine found himself in the crosshairs of the KKK and White Citizens Council. On October 8th – two days before he fled the state – De Laine received a chilling anonymous letter. Gona reproduces the letter in full, and it reads in part:
Maybe you dont [sic] know Lake City but you are going to find out real soon. Several hundred of us have had a meeting and pleged [sic] our selves to put you where you belong, if there is such a place. I wonder if ever heard about the Negro Postmaster what was send [sic] to Lake City and was notified to leve [sic]. He refused. However, he left, but in a coffin. So we have decided to give you 10 days to leave lake City…This is final (p.177).
Two days later, Reverend De Laine fled his beloved South Carolina. He left without even saying goodbye to his wife who was down the street at a neighbor’s house.
Gona chooses to end DAWN OF DESEGREGATION at that point. In a brief epilogue, she mentions each of the BRIGGS heroes, including the nearly two dozen original plaintiffs on the case and Judge Waties Waring who resigned his federal judgeship in disgust after ending up on the losing side of the BRIGGS court decision at the district level. She mentions her father’s exile - first New York City, and then Charlotte, North Carolina, where he died in 1974 - and the posthumous recognition [*51] of his life’s work. But we get precious little about the twenty years he lived after he fled his home. Perhaps there is a second memoir in the works on that part of Reverend De Laine’s life.
There is much to appreciate in this short memoir, and much that would spark discussions in courses on the history of Civil Rights and education desegregation. The sometimes tendentious relationship between the NAACP and the people of Clarendon County is fascinating, and could be addressed in conjunction with the issues raised by Derrick Bell in his classic article “Serving Two Masters: Integration Ideals and Client Interests in School Desegregation Litigation.” It is also rather interesting that Gona only mentions in passing the use of “social science” data (e.g., Kenneth Clark’s doll tests) in the BRIGGS trial. Not that there was a need for it in the narrative; on the other hand, its absence brings to light another key element of the BROWN decision. Nowhere in Gona’s account is there any discussion about the conclusions undergirding that data – namely, that African American kids suffered from “damaged psyches” due to the evils of segregation. As I have argued elsewhere, the logic of this argument is flawed (Malone, 2008). What is clear is that the people of Clarendon knew they were not being treated equally, and they demanded that right as American citizens. Further, Judge Waring barely refers to the social science data in his scathing dissent, the last he would pen. For those who fought for it courageously, the BRIGGS decision, if I read Gona accurately, was about fairness and being treated with dignity, more so than any attempt to rectify the fragile egos of their children by sending them to integrated schools.
Perhaps this is the ultimate irony in DAWN OF DESEGREGATION: integration is but a subtext, conspicuously present by its absence. Which gives one a very different perspective on what this fight was all about in the first place.
Bell, Jr., Derrick A. 1976. “Serving Two Masters: Integration Ideals and Client Interests in School Desegregation Litigation.” THE YALE LAW JOURNAL 85(Mar): pp. 470-516Botsch, Robert E. BRIGGS V. ELLIOTT (1954), http://www.usca.edu/aasc/briggsvelliott.htm
Malone, Christopher. 2008. BETWEEN FREEDOM AND BONDAGE: RACE, PARTY AND VOTING RIGHTS IN THE ANTEBELLUM NORTH. (New York: Routledge Press).
Time. 1948. “South Carolina: The Man They Love to Hate.” August 23. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,798991,00.html.CASE REFERENCES
BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION, 347 U.S. 483 (1954)
BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION, 349 U.S. 294 (1955) (BROWN II)
MCLAURIN V. OKLAHOMA STATE REGENTS, 339 U.S. 637 (1950)
MISSOURI EX REL. GAINES V. CANADA, 305 U.S. 337 (1938)
SWEATT V. PAINTER, 339 U.S. 629 (1950)
Copyright by the Author, Christopher Malone.