MAY 16, 1950

Twenty Black families from South Carolina filed the lawsuit, Briggs v. Elliott, the first direct attack on the validity of the “separate but equal” doctrine in public schools. 

The litigation was later combined with the successful Brown v. Board of Education case. The litigation might never have happened if not for the Rev. Joseph A. DeLaine, who accepted the NAACP’s call to challenge the school bus transportation practices in Clarendon County, where Black students had to walk up to 8 miles to school. 

“I realize that the stand that I take may cost me my job as a school teacher, but we need men,” he wrote

Property owner Levi Pearson had previously sued, asking that school buses be provided for Black students. After his lawsuit failed on technical grounds, Thurgood Marshall approached DeLaine, saying he needed families for litigation, or the NAACP couldn’t go any further. 

After gathering the signatures of 107 parents and their children, economic pressure and violence followed. Despite this, 17 adults signed the petition again, and the lawsuit moved forward to trial. Evidence showed that South Carolina spent $221 annually for each white student, but only $45 for each Black student. White children had modern schools with a teacher for every grade. Meanwhile, Black children studied in wooden shacks, reading textbooks discarded by white students. 

As a result of their activism, the Pearson family saw boycotts of their timber, and the Briggses were fired from their jobs. So were DeLaine and his wife. They saw their home and church burned to the ground. They were forced to leave the state after a drive-by shooting. In 2003, the families of DeLaine, Levi Pearson and the Briggses received Congressional Gold Medals for their courage.

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The stories of investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell have helped put four Klansmen and a serial killer behind bars. His stories have also helped free two people from death row, exposed injustices and corruption, prompting investigations and reforms as well as the firings of boards and officials. He is a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a longtime member of Investigative Reporters & Editors, and a winner of more than 30 other national awards, including a $500,000 MacArthur “genius” grant. After working for three decades for the statewide Clarion-Ledger, Mitchell left in 2019 and founded the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting.