Educator Resources

Briggs v. Elliott

Briggs v. Elliott

Background:

Brown v. Board of Education consisted of five combined U.S. District Court cases from across the country that challenged the 'separate but equal' doctrine as a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Those five cases were Bolling v. Sharpe (Washington D.C.), Briggs v. Elliott (South Carolina), Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, Davis v. Prince Edward County (Virginia), and Gebhart v. Belton (Delaware). All these cases were important to the final outcome of Brown but the Briggs Case is especially significant. It was the first case of the five, beginning in 1949, and it was the only case from the Deep South. Although the plaintiffs lost their case at the district level, one of the three Federal judges wrote a scathing dissent of the majority ruling, condemning the practice of school segregation, and arguing for the end of the practice. Amazingly, the elderly judge had been a life-long Southerner and South Carolinian.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People argued the case for the plaintiffs but did not, at first, want to take the case for fear that the rural African Americans of Clarendon County, South Carolina would not have the determination to stay the course. Many of the plaintiffs lost their jobs, homes were burnt to the ground, and local leader, Rev. Joseph DeLaine, was forced to leave the state on a questionable felony charge, never to return. The NAACP did take the case, assigning Thurgood Marshall as lead attorney. Marshall would later become the first African American U.S. Supreme Court Justice.

While at the U.S. District Court level, the case took an odd twist when the State of South Carolina acknowledged that segregated schools for African Americans were not equal and action was being taken by the governor and the state legislature to alleviate the situation by funding the construction of new schools for African American children across the state thus keeping schools separate but finally making them equal. This may have been why two of the Federal judges ruled in favor of continued segregation. The dissenting judge, J. Waites Waring, did not let these actions cloud his judgment but stated in his twenty page explanation that "segregation is per se inequality."

There are many primary source documents from the Briggs Case that are highly effective in the classroom. Included in this unit is Thurgood Marshall's Assignment of Errors in appealing to the Supreme Court and J. Waites Waring's Dissenting Opinion.

Documents

Refer to Caption Assignment of Errors from Harry Briggs, Jr., et al., vs. R. W. Elliott, Chairman, et al: 05/09/1952 - 05/09/1952 National Archives Identifier 279305
    
Refer to Caption Dissenting Opinion from Harry Briggs, Jr., et al. v. R. W. Elliott, Chairman, et al.: 06/23/1951 National Archives Identifier 279306 (21 pages)

Classroom Activity

The following activity is from The National Archives and Records Administration's Teaching With Documents Lesson Plan: Documents Related to Brown v. Board of Education. For the complete lesson visit http://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/brown-v-board/

Analyzing the Documents

The Dissenting Opinion of Judge Waites Waring in Harry Briggs, Jr., et al. v. R. W. Elliott, Chairman, et al. is 20 pages in length, but for purposes of this lesson, the focus is on the final 3 pages. The Briggs case originated in Clarendon County, South Carolina, and was argued by Thurgood Marshall, counsel for the NAACP. Pages 18-20 of the dissenting opinion describe some of the social scientists' testimony later used by the Supreme Court in the Brown decision. Before reading pages 18-20 together as a class, provide students with background information about the policy of "separate but equal," specifically the Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which Brown v. Board of Education helped to make obsolete. Prompt a class discussion of the document with the following questions: Upon what evidence did the witnesses base their testimony? What was the judge's conclusion about the acquisition of racial prejudice? What was his opinion?

If time permits, a more complete understanding of the opinion may be gleaned by dividing the remainder of the document among small groups of students. Direct each group to read and summarize the main point of its assigned section and share its findings with the class. The following page breakdowns are suggested:

pages 1-5 background information
pages 5-7 rationale for hearing the case
pages 7-8 slavery and the Constitution
pages 8-9 13th, 14th, 15th Amendments
pages 9-10 South Carolina laws
pages 10-12 litigation in other areas
pages 12-13 litigation in higher education
pages 13-14 Plessy v. Ferguson
pages 14-16 higher education decisions
pages 16-18 defendants' two witnesses

If a teacher finds unique and effective ways to use these documents in their classroom and would like to share them with other teachers, please contact joel.walker@nara.gov.

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