Brown v. Board at 70: We Need ‘uncommon courage’ to preserve our progress

OPINION: We have made tremendous strides over the past 70 years. But our nation finds itself at another crossroads. We must ask ourselves: What kind of country do you want to leave for your children and our children’s children?

People walk past a sign in front of the Monroe Elementary School on the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of Oliver L. Brown v the Board of Education of Topeka May 17, 2004 in Topeka, Kansas. (Photo by Larry W. Smith/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

I still remember where I was on May 17, 1954 when I first heard that the U.S. Supreme Court had handed down the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas decision. Walking home from segregated Lincoln High School in Sumter, South Carolina, I rejoiced with my schoolmates that the Supreme Court had acknowledged that “separate but equal” was “inherently unequal.” 

We were ninth and tenth graders and our adolescent naivete had us believing that come September, we would no longer be studying from old textbooks and used workbooks. We envisioned having more modern classrooms and well-equipped science labs. We had no idea that most of us would have finished high school, graduated college and become tenured employees by the time any serious attempts would be made to implement the decision. The road to Brown, one of the most consequential legal decisions of the 20th century, began in little-known Clarendon County, South Carolina. 

When the lawsuit was filed, Clarendon County was spending $179 per white student compared to only $42 per Black student. While the white students attended schools with running water, modern libraries, state-of-the-art classrooms and over 30 buses, Black schools had much less. Black students were also forced to walk to school, some of them as much as seven miles.  Parents requested a bus for their children and were denied. This denial precipitated an unprecedented movement that spawned some uncommon courage from some ordinary people. With assistance from faith leaders, the local branch of the NAACP and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, 23 courageous people signed a petition that led to a lawsuit that was filed on May 16, 1950. 

Named Briggs v. Elliott, for Harry Briggs, the first signatory of the petition, and R.W. Elliott, president of the Clarendon County School Board, the case was argued in federal court before a three-judge panel that ruled 2 to 1 against the petitioners. The dissenting judge was J. Waites Waring, a Charleston native and grandson of a confederate soldier. Judge Waring had been rewarded with a federal judgeship for having successfully managed the campaign of Democratic Senator Ellison D. “Cotton Ed” Smith, a white supremacist.

It was Judge Waring’s lot to preside over the case of the blinding of Sgt. Isaac Woodard. Sgt. Woodard — a Black, decorated World War II veteran traveling home on a Greyhound bus to Winnsboro, South Carolina, while still in his uniform after being honorably discharged — was blinded when a local police officer forcibly removed him from the bus and beat him with a nightstick. Woodard was thrown in jail rather than given medical treatment. The police chief was ultimately charged but acquitted by an all-white jury. 


The Woodard case caught the attention of President Harry Truman who responded with “uncommon courage” and issued Executive Order No. 9981, integrating the armed forces. Presiding over that case proved enlightening for Judge Waring and led him to display some “uncommon courage” in his Briggs dissent. He wrote: “They showed beyond a doubt that the evils of segregation and color prejudice come from early training … and that is an evil that must be eradicated.” 

Uncommon courage was also being displayed in several other communities across the country. The Supreme Court responded by combining Briggs v Elliott with four other cases: Davis v. County School Board in Farmville, Virginia (1951); Belton v. Gebhart in Delaware (1951); Boiling v. Sharpe in Washington, D.C. (1951); and Brown v. Board of Education in Topeka, Kansas (1951). Although I was alive at the time, I was not a part of the decision-making as to why the case was named Brown rather than the earliest case, Briggs. But in a 9-0 decision, the Supreme Court sided with Judge Waring’s dissenting opinion in Briggs.

Twenty years ago, I wrote a little tabletop book, “Uncommon Courage: The Story of Briggs V. Elliott, South Carolina’s Unsung Civil Rights Battle,” to commemorate the bravery of the Briggs plaintiffs. If I were writing that book today, I would be much more expansive in my recognition of the “uncommon courage” on display at the time.  It took “uncommon courage” for President Truman to issue his executive order and for Judge Waring to issue his dissent. Their uncommon courage led to significant progress toward our pursuit of “a more perfect Union.”

We have made tremendous strides over the past 70 years. But our progress is at risk, and as we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Brown v. Board decision, our nation finds itself at another crossroads. We must ask ourselves: What kind of country do you want to leave for your children and our children’s children? It’s the question that motivated the Briggs petitioners, President Truman and Judge Waring. 

There seems to be some backlash to the election of our first African-American president, our first Afro-Asian-American and woman vice president, and the first Black woman serving on the Supreme Court. Perhaps, now more than ever, our country is in desperate need of some “uncommon courage” to protect the freedoms we hold dear and continue our pursuit toward a “more perfect Union.” 

James E. Clyburn is the U.S. Congressman representing South Carolina’s 6th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives and Chairman of the Democratic Faith Working Group. A former House Majority Whip, Assistant Democratic Leader, and Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, he has served the 6th District in Congress since 1993.