The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday turned away an unusual request to rename its historic decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in recognition of a companion desegregation case from South Carolina.
The court acted with a routine order without comment or dissent in In Re Nathaniel Briggs.
Descendants of the litigants who challenged racial segregation in South Carolina in the case known as Briggs v. Elliott argued that their case was the first to reach the Supreme Court in the early 1950s, and only because of procedural and clerical reasons was the Brown case put at the top of the landmark 1954 decision that outlawed separate schools for Black students.
“The plaintiffs in Briggs filed first in United States District Court, filed first in the United States Supreme Court, and brought the case that was argued by the Honorable Thurgood Marshall based upon the dissent in the South Carolina case,” says the filing by the Briggs descendants, who noted that the Supreme Court sent the case back to South Carolina for consideration of a state report on efforts to equalize spending for Black and white schools.
“When the petitioners returned to this court, the clerk inadvertently docketed the Briggs case after Brown instead of placing it back as the first case filed,” said the Nov. 6 filing, which was styled as a “petition for a writ of mandamus"—a request that the court mandate the change. “This inadvertent clerical misstep deprived the petitioners their rightful place in history in spite of the great physical, emotional, and financial risks taken by each petitioner. The petitioners request that their place in history be restored by the simple act of reordering the petitioners to the just and accurate place.”
Nathaniel Briggs, the youngest son of South Carolina lead plaintiff Harry Briggs, told Education Week last spring when the effort was announced that, “For historical correctness, it needs to be said which case came first.”
There was more to the story, or at least some competing theories, as to why the Supreme Court put the Brown case from Kansas at the top of the four state cases consolidated in the decision.
The other cases making up the landmark Brown decision were from Delaware and Virginia. In contrast, a fifth case, from the District of Columbia, resulted in a separate 1954 high court decision, Bolling v. Sharpe, based on the 5th Amendment’s due-process clause rather than the 14th Amendment’s equal-protection clause, which applies only to the states.
A desire by the court to put a Midwestern case on top?
Some historians believe the court placed the Brown case on top because Kansas was a Midwestern state and not a former slave state. Justice Tom C. Clark, a member of the court that decided the cases, said as much to author Richard B. Kluger for his 1975 book Simple Justice, a highly regarded account of all five cases.
Cheryl Brown Henderson, the youngest daughter of Oliver Brown, the Topeka railroad worker who was the lead plaintiff in the Brown lawsuit, told Education Week last spring that while she did not oppose the South Carolina effort, she had expressed her misgivings to the South Carolina descendants. There had been efforts to desegregate Topeka’s schools for years before the Brown suit was filed, she reminded them. Also, the Brown Foundation for Educational Equity, Excellence, and Research had long worked to promote the history and legacies of all five cases that made up the Brown and Bolling decisions.
In their motion to the court, the South Carolina descendants argued that the litigants of each of the companion cases to Brown “faded into relative anonymity.”
“Plaintiffs of the companion cases fought equally as hard for desegregation, and in some cases paid a much higher price, but they received none of the national attention or support that came along with the decision in Brown v. Board,” the legal filing said.
They also pointed out that Marshall, the legal director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the architect of the strategy to attack racial segregation in education, argued the Briggs case in state and federal courts in South Carolina and before the Supreme Court. Marshall, later the nation’s first Black Supreme Court justice, did not go to Topeka and his lieutenants argued the Kansas case before the high court.
The descendants’ filing argued that public school segregation was harsher in South Carolina than in the other locales making up the Brown decision. They argued that Clarendon County, S.C., remains heavily segregated and the enrollment of Scott’s Branch High School, which was at the center of the Briggs litigation, has a 96 percent minority enrollment today.