The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) mourns the loss of Harry Briggs Jr. LDF represented the Briggs family in one of the most important fights for justice in our nation’s history: the legal battle over ending racial segregation in public schools. LDF represented Harry Jr.’s parents, Harry Briggs Sr. and Eliza Gamble Briggs, in Briggs v. Elliot, the first of the five cases that would be consolidated into Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, in which the United States Supreme Court declared racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional.
“The Briggs family showed incredible bravery and endured profound sacrifice to fight the stinging injustice of segregated education,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of LDF. “They, with the help of the LDF attorneys who stood beside them, transformed the arc of our national history. Because of their courage, millions of children of all races have benefited from integration and diversity.”
Harry Briggs Jr. was born on February 10, 1941 and grew up in Clarendon County, South Carolina. The South Carolina of the mid-20th Century was a place shackled by the injustice of Jim Crow. Segregation was firmly enforced, inequality enshrined in the state constitution. Among the many indignities suffered by African Americans in Clarendon County, the lack of equal access to education cut particularly deeply.
In pursuit of education, Harry Jr. and many of his peers were forced to walk as many as ten miles each way to get to school. The white children of the county travelled the same roads Harry did in buses. His parents, Harry Sr. and Eliza, were angry at the gross injustice of their son and the other Black children of Clarendon County trudging for miles while the county provided bus service to white children. They wanted their children to have the same services and same quality of education. What they had in Clarendon County was a far cry from equal.
With the help of Rev. Joseph A. DeLaine, a local pastor and teacher at Liberty Hill Elementary School, they joined together with 21 other families to find a school bus suitable for their children. School officials denied their request for a bus, saying it would be unfair for white citizens to provide transportation to Black students because the Black community collectively paid less taxes. Instead, the Briggses and other families collected donations within their community and purchased a second-hand school bus, but it required continual repairs that proved to be too costly for the parents.
Not to be deterred and at great personal risk, Rev. DeLaine and the families decided to take legal action. On March 16, 1948, Thurgood Marshall, LDF’s founder and first Director-Counsel, and local attorney Harold Boulware, filed in U.S. District Court the case of Levi Pearson v. Clarendon County Board of Education to require the county to enforce the “equal” portion of “separate but equal” when it came to providing transportation to school. Their case was dismissed due to a technicality, but the Clarendon County families and those fighting on their behalf refused to accept defeat.
A year later, Harry’s family, Rev. DeLaine, and other Clarendon County parents filed a second case. Conditions for Black children in Clarendon County schools were still appalling and this time, they didn’t just demand a bus, but full educational equality. With the help of Thurgood Marshall and other LDF attorneys, the families filed Briggs v. Elliot. The lawsuit laid bare the vast disparity in the educational experiences of white and Black children. While white students attended pristine brick schoolhouses with indoor plumbing, new textbooks, and small class sizes, Harry and his fellow students went to class in a ramshackle wooden schoolhouse with just one room for each grade, outhouses, and outdated, tattered textbooks
As the case developed, the Briggs team eventually moved beyond trying to enforce “separate but equal” and confronted that pernicious doctrine head-on, saying that any segregation flew in the face of the United States Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection. Thurgood Marshall argued that separate cannot be equal. The legal team brought in noted psychologist Dr. Kenneth Clark to show the malignant effects of “separate but equal” on Black children like Harry. After a thorough review, Dr. Clark testified that separating African-American children “from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”
Despite this powerful testimony and the promises of equality clearly written into the United States Constitution, the Briggs family and other plaintiffs lost their case in the lower court. But they were unbowed and they appealed the case all the way to the United States Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court heard Briggs as well as cases from Kansas, Delaware, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. that together formed the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Briggses and the other children and families who had been bravely fighting the battle for years. In a unanimous opinion, the Court declared that “in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” Brown v. Board of Education overturned almost 60 years of legal segregation and was a significant victory for African Americans and the Civil Rights Movement, and a turning point in American history.
Everyone involved in Briggs v. Elliot risked their lives and livelihoods to better the lives of their children and future generations. Despite their history-altering victory, both during and after the case, plaintiffs faced a sustained campaign of indignity, harassment, and violence. They were fired from their jobs, denied credit, prevented from leasing land they had worked for generations. Beatings, arson, and threats from the Ku Klux Klan were a fact of life. Rev. DeLaine and his wife, Mattie, were fired from their jobs. DeLaine’s church was also burned to the ground, and he was forced to relocate to New York after surviving an attempted drive-by shooting. Even young Harry Jr. lost his paper route and was chased out of white neighborhoods. All the parents involved in the lawsuit also lost their jobs, including Harry Sr. and Eliza, who had been fired early on in the struggle.
Because of the sustained campaign of economic harassment, Harry Sr. was unable to provide for his family in South Carolina and moved to Florida to find work. In 1960, Harry Jr. moved to New York with his brother while his mother and three other siblings moved to Miami. Harry Jr. eventually secured a job as a guard at Madison Square Garden and the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center until illness forced him to retire in 2008.
In 2004, Harry Jr.’s parents, Harry Sr. and Eliza, Rev. Joseph A. DeLaine, and Levi Pearson were posthumously awarded with Congressional Gold Medals for their courageous roles in ending segregation. Eliza was also honored with South Carolina’s highest civilian honor, the Order of the Palmetto.
Harry Briggs Jr. passed away at his home in New York on August 9, 2016. The elementary school attended by Briggs, his siblings, and other students involved in the lawsuit has been transformed into a community center. It held a funeral service for Harry Briggs Jr. on August 19, 2016.
He is survived by a loving family, including his wife, Helen Mack Briggs and four children, Ronald Junious, Gregory Junious, Patricia Briggs-Perry, and Audra Briggs.
Founded in 1940, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) is the nation’s first civil and human rights law organization and has been completely separate from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) since 1957—although LDF was originally founded by the NAACP and shares its commitment to equal rights. In media attributions, please refer to us as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund or LDF.