Remembering Harry Briggs, Jr. – A Civil Rights Icon

(1964) – (left to right): A press conference at the Hotel Americana celebrates the tenth anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. Four of the five plaintiffs whose class action cases combined in Brown are pictured together: Harry Briggs, Jr. (Briggs v Elliot), Linda Brown Smith (Brown v Board of Education of Topeka), Spottswood Bolling, Jr. (Bolling v. Sharpe), and Ethel Louise Belton Brown (Gebhart v. Belton [Bulah] ). The fifth case was Dorothy E. Davis v County School Board of Prince Edward County, Virginia.

We are saddened to hear about the passing of Harry Briggs, Jr. last week. In the late 1940s, when Harry was in elementary school in Clarendon County, his parents, Harry Briggs, Sr. and Eliza Gamble.

Briggs, thought it was unfair that Harry Jr. and the other black children didn’t have a school bus like the white children did. So Harry Sr. and Eliza, with the help of Rev. J. A. DeLaine, joined together with other black parents and brought a lawsuit, represented by Thurgood Marshall of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and local lawyer Harold Boulware. This lawsuit was dismissed by the court without even considering its merits. But those fighting on behalf of Harry Jr. and the other children refused to accept defeat.

The plaintiffs tried again in 1950, bringing a new case that went far beyond their initial demand for a school bus—they first demanded that the quality of the black schools be made equal to that of the white schools, and subsequently they challenged the constitutionality of segregation itself. They lost in the lower courts, as they expected.

But one judge—J. Waties Waring—dissented, agreeing with Briggs and the other plaintiffs that segregation was unconstitutional under all circumstances because of the harmful impact it had on children.

“Segregation can never produce equality,” Judge Waring wrote, and “it is an evil that must be eradicated.”

The case was appealed to the Supreme Court. Other similar cases had been brought and appealed in the meantime, and the Supreme Court consolidated them for consideration under the name of one: Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. The court, in an opinion by Chief Justice Earl Warren, unanimously held what the plaintiffs had argued—forcing Harry Jr. and other black children to go to segregated schools, “even though the physical facilities and other ‘tangible’ factors may be equal,” had “a detrimental effect upon” them and that they were “deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.”

Chief Justice Warren, in his discussion of the impact of segregated schools on black children like Harry Jr. and his conclusion that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” appeared to be channeling Judge Waring’s dissent.

As schools in Clarendon County and throughout the rest of the South were desegregated, Harry Jr. settled in New York, working at Madison Square Garden and the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center until his retirement. But while he was not physically present in South Carolina, subsequent generations of South Carolina children have stood on his shoulders.

Harry Briggs, Jr. was preceded in death by his first wife, Marie Sanders Briggs. He is survived by his wife, Helen Mack Briggs, and his children, Ronald Junious (Caroline, Sumter, SC), Gregory Junious, Patricia Briggs-Perry, and Audra Briggs. Funeral services will be held 1:00 pm Friday, August 19 at the Clarendon School District 1 Resource Center gymnasium, 1154 Fourth Street, Summerton, SC (the old Scott’s Branch High School). Wake services will be held Thursday, August 18, 2016, 5:00-7:00 pm at Hayes F. & LaNelle J. Samuels, Sr. Memorial Chapel, 114 North Church Street, Manning, SC. In lieu of floral arrangements, donations are being accepted for St. Marks AME Church of Summerton, P.O. Box 262, Larry David King Highway, Summerton, SC 29148.

I was personally honored to meet and work with Mr. Briggs and his family to design the Congressional Gold Medals honoring the historic desegregation case.

We extend our deepest condolences to the entire Briggs family and their friends during this difficult time, we thank them for the contributions their family made to make our state and our country a better place, and we redouble our efforts to fight for all of our children as hard as Harry and Eliza Briggs fought for their son Harry Jr.

Submitted by Jaime Harrison,
SC?Democratic Party Chair

Leave a Comment