South Carolina Desegregation Heroes Receive Congressional Gold Medal

Sep 8, 2004

(Washington, DC) - Recognition has finally come for four South Carolina civil rights pioneers who were instrumental in the first desegregation lawsuit, Briggs v. Elliott, that later became Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.  Today Congressional Gold Medals of Honor were awarded posthumously to Harry and Eliza Briggs, Reverend Joseph A. DeLaine, and Levi Pearson in a moving Capitol Rotunda ceremony. 

Congressman James E. Clyburn (D-SC) and Senator Fritz Hollings (D-SC) introduced the legislation to award the highest Congressional honor to these Clarendon County, South Carolina heroes in the fight for desegregation. 

"I want to thank the families for their courage and inspiration in never giving up," Congressman Clyburn said as he gave the welcome and introduction during the hour and half ceremony.  "I used their example to spur me on when Speaker Hastert told me it would be a formidable task to get the gold medal legislation passed.  I didn't give up, and I pledge to you today that I will never give up fighting for the legacy of Harry and Eliza Briggs, Reverend DeLaine and Levi Pearson."

"Because of the courage and undying perseverance of these recipients the words 'all men are created equal' finally ring true," Senator Hollings said in his remarks on the resolution.  "Their actions changed the climate of the country so that Rosa Parks could keep her seat, the Freedom Riders could ride, and Martin Luther King, Jr. could march."

The event was very moving for the families of the recipients.  Mr. Nathaniel Briggs, the son of Harry and Eliza Briggs, received the award on their behalf.  Mrs. Viola Pearson, the widow of Levi Pearson, accepted her late husband's honor, and Mr. J.A. DeLaine, Jr., the son of Reverend Joseph DeLaine, received his father's medal. 

"My parents were so much more than a gas station attendant and a chamber maid," Nathaniel Briggs said after accepting the gold medal.  "They were people who put their country above themselves."

"Levi Pearson had many stones thrown at him for his actions, and he gathered them to build a foundation to raise up others," Ferdinand Pearson said of his father.  "He wasn't a man of great education and many degrees, but he was a man of great heart and much faith."

"These medals were achieved for what happened 50 years ago, but we cannot make our current laws based on what happened then," J.A. DeLaine, Jr. said.  "This case changed America, but it didn't change Clarendon County." 

All of the speakers echoed the inspiration of the recipients, and urged those in attendance to continue the fight for equality in education that has not yet been attained.  Other speakers included Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Congressional Black Caucus Chair Elijah Cummings (D-MD), U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige, who represented the President at this ceremony, and South Carolina State University President Andrew Hugine.

Each family received a golf medal printed by the U.S. Mint containing the likenesses of the recipients under the heading Briggs v. Elliott, "Our Trust In God."  These figures are flanked on either side by Palmetto trees, the State Tree of South Carolina, and across the bottom is emblazoned Brown v. Board of Education.  The reverse side depicts Lady Justice and the heading Honoring the Pioneers and Petitioners from Clarendon County, South Carolina.  The back includes a quote from Judge J. Waites Waring's dissenting opinion in the Briggs v. Elliott case that the petitioners proved "that segregation in education can never produce equality and that it is an evil that must be eradicated."  Under the quote is inscribed Act of Congress 2003, commemorating the passage of Congressman Clyburn's and Senator Hollings' legislation to award the medal of honor. 

The legislation was introduced to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board, which occurred this year.  Congressman Clyburn and Senator Hollings sought to recognize the Briggs, Reverend DeLaine and Mr. Pearson because their contributions and their stories have not been appropriately recognized.    

Reverend Joseph Armstrong DeLaine organized the original 106 petitioners, 18 of whom and 2 others made up the original plaintiffs in Briggs v. Elliott, the first of the five cases that were merged and became Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka Kansas.At the time of their petition, black children in ClarendonCountywere walking nine miles each way to school, and all they petitioned for was a school bus.  When their request for a bus was denied, they sought relief in the courts.  Reverend Delaine was harassed by the Ku Klux Klan and several attempts were made on his life.   His church was burned, and when he responded in kind to gunshots that were fired into his home in 1955, law enforcement officials issued a warrant for Reverend DeLaine's arrest.  Fearing the consequences, he and his family fled the state. 

Levi Pearson was a small ClarendonCountyfarmer. He responded to Reverend DeLaine's request and sued the School Districton behalf of his three children who were walking those nine miles to school each day. His decision was met with dire consequences.   The local bank refused to provide him credit to purchase farming equipment and supplies, and other farmers refused to lend him equipment.  Shots were fired into his home and he was ostracized by his neighbors. Despite these actions, Pearson continued with his suit.  But in 1948, the United States District Court dismissed Pearson's suit finding that although his farm was partially in Clarendon School District One, his house was situated in School District2 and therefore he did not have standing. Although his legal case was dismissed, Pearson continued to fight against segregation and later became President of the local NAACP chapter.  In spite of extreme hardships, he never left his land.

Harry Briggs, a service station attendant, and his wife Eliza, a maid at a local motel, took up the cause.  As did Levi Pearson, and Reverend DeLaine, they suffered inhumane consequences for their actions.  They were fired from their jobs, but persevered; and, as is often said, "the rest is history."   Because he was "blackballed" in South Carolinaand could not find employment, Briggs moved to Floridawhere he lived out his productive life. 

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