Erect a Statue of This Civil Rights Hero

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Rev. Joseph De Laine

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Ophelia De Laine Gona, from the book, “Dawn of Desegregation.”

If you look closely at Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 school desegregation decision, you’ll see that Brown wasn’t a single case. It was five cases consolidated into one. Briggs v. Elliott, the first of them, took place in my home state, South Carolina. Briggs came about after the Rev. Joseph De Laine organized a group of black parents in Clarendon County to petition for equal educational facilities. The man who stood fast against that request — the Elliott of Briggs v. Elliott — was the chairman of the school board, Roderick Miles Elliott. Or as he was known in my family, Uncle Roddy.

Although I grew up in South Carolina in the 1960s and ’70s, I didn’t learn about Briggs v. Elliott until I was an adult. My father, Uncle Roddy’s nephew, often talked about how shamefully black people were treated in Clarendon County, but he was deeply uncomfortable with the part our family had played. Like most Southerners, he was skilled at avoiding unpleasant conversations, and in the case of Briggs, events conspired to help him. For reasons that remain murky, the Supreme Court case came to be called Brown rather than Briggs, even though Briggs preceded Brown both alphabetically and temporally. So it was Brown v. Board of Education that was memorialized in the history textbooks, and our family name was spared association in the public mind with a racist cause.

I won’t pretend I’m not grateful. But the fact that Brown has overshadowed Briggs has also meant that Mr. De Laine, the man who did more than anyone else to bring about school desegregation in South Carolina, has been too often forgotten. This month, with the blessing of his surviving children, Joseph De Laine Jr. and Ophelia De Laine Gona, my cousin Joe Elliott — Uncle Roddy’s grandson —…

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