About Briggs v. Elliott

Briggs v. Elliott is a short name for the lawsuit Briggs et al. v. Elliott et al, a lawsuit filed in Federal Court about January 1951. The case is also simply referred to as Briggs. The  petition was signed by twenty (20) parents who lived in Summerton, South Carolina.

Because it challenged the constitution of the state of South Carolina, Briggs was appealed directly to the U. S. Supreme Court.

Approximate location (shaded area) of Clarendon in South Carolina

Summerton is  a small, rural town in the lower third of Clarendon County. At the time of the filing of Briggs, the county had a population of less than 34,000 people, the majority of whom had African ancestors.

White children in the county attended consolidated schools funded by money from public funds. Black children, however, attended numerous small, inadequate, and—usually—dilapidated schools. These were built, in general, with moneys raised by parents, or donated by philanthropies. Other than teacher salaries, very little financial educational support came from government sources.

The Briggs petitioners sued for desegregation of public schools in Clarendon County School District 22. Their claim was that racial segregation in public schools was an infringement of equal protection rights guaranteed under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

The lawsuit was a direct challenge to the section of South Carolina’s state constitution that made it unlawful for children of different races to attend the same schools.

A South Carolina school for black children (~1940)

Briggs was the first of five lawsuits challenging public school segregation laws to reach the Supreme Court. It was also the first of these cases to be filed in the federal courts. The other lawsuits came from Virginia (Davis et al. v. County School Board), Delaware (Gebhart et al. v. Belton et al.), Kansas (Brown et al. v. Board of Education of Topeka et al.), and the District of Columbia (Bolling et al. v. Sharpe et al.). Like Briggs, the first three of these challenged the practice of segregation on the basis of the Fourteenth Amendment (which applies only to states). The case from the District of Columbia based its argument on the Fifth Amendment.

The Supreme Court’s decision was announced on May 17, 1954. In a unanimous (9–0) decision, the decision stated that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” Therefore, public school segregation was ruled a violation of the  of the Fourteenth Amendment. Using the same rationale for the case from Washington, the Court held that “racial segregation in the public schools…is a denial of the due process of law guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment  to the Constitution.”

The 1954 decisions for all five cases are usually referred to as a single decision, Brown v. Board, or simply Brown.

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