ABOVE PHOTO: George E. C. Hayes, Thurgood Marshall, and James M. Nabrit, congratulating each other, following Supreme Court decision declaring segregation unconstitutional, 1954.
Courtesy of AP/World Wide Photos
By Patricia Sullivan
The men and women who founded and built the NAACP saved nearly everything, establishing arguably the most important documentary record on civil rights struggles in America. That record comprises the largest archival collection in the Library of Congress.
More than a decade ago, I immersed myself in this ocean of papers from which the framework for “Lift Every Voice: The NAACP and the making of the Civil Rights Movement” gradually surfaced. Not surprisingly, this book became more than the history of an organization. Founded in 1909, just after legal segregation had triumphed in the South and as racial discrimination was spreading in northern cities, the NAACP’s insistent battle against racial barriers and its tireless pursuit of equal justice kept the promise of American democracy alive. NAACP activists seeded the movement that ultimately dismantled Jim Crow in the South and elevated civil rights to an issue of national consequence.
Beyond the steady run of administrative, legislative and legal files in the Library’s wonderfully accessible collection, the NAACP papers include field reports by organizers and civil rights attorneys; branch records from communities across the country; and thousands and thousands of letters. These rich, first-person accounts and observations, spanning decades, expose the web of racist practices that structured American life, North and South—often enforced by violence—and reveal what it took to imagine and fight to create a society true to the nation’s founding principles and constitutional guarantees.
The NAACP challenged racial injustice on multiple fronts: in the courts, in legislative arenas, in the realm of public opinion and in communities nationwide; the odds at times seemed insurmountable. And even after securing hard-won victories—such as in the long fight against housing discrimination in northern cities—those successes brought only incremental and often fleeting change. But the legal campaign initiated by Charles Houston and carried forward by Thurgood Marshall and a team of attorneys and local activists took aim at the South’s rigid caste system and tied litigation to a long-term program of community organizing—an effort that culminated with the 1954 Brown v. Board ruling. This pivotal decision laid the foundation for toppling the legal underpinnings of Jim Crow and for enacting civil rights legislation that expanded federal protection of citizenship rights for all Americans.
The following excerpt describes the trial of Briggs v. Elliot, the first case in a series of cases that comprised Brown v. Board of Education. (Copyright © 2009 by Patricia Sullivan. This excerpt originally appeared in “Lift Every Voice: The NAACP and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement,” published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.)
“The circumstances surrounding the Briggs trial in May 1951 revealed the fusion of elements that brought the NAACP, the South, and the nation to the edge of momentous change.
[Thurgood] Marshall, [Robert] Carter, [Kenneth] Clark, and Spottswood Robinson traveled together by train to Charleston, arriving a week before the start of the trial.
When they arrived in Charleston they set up shop at the home of local NAACP supporters Reginald and Eva Boone. The place was abuzz with activity as the lawyers prepared for the case. Clark spent two days over in Clarendon County, interviewing the children at Scotts Branch School—his first exposure to the oppressive and terror ridden climate of the Deep South. “The fact that our side was playing for keeps really sank through to me,” he later recalled. Back at the Boone house, though, a festive atmosphere prevailed. Working sessions and meals took place around a large table in the attached garage, where a cool breeze gave some respite from the heat and humidity. Eva Boone hired a cook to feed “the overflow of lawyers, reporters, expert witnesses, stenographers [and] NAACP hands” and the well wishers who dropped in. New York Post reporter Ted Posten, a longtime associate of the NAACP lawyers, was there. He remembered “an inner joyousness affecting everyone in the place.” For Clark, the entire Charleston experience “really opened my eyes. I saw the tremendous psychological investment these men had in the case” and of course my life hasn’t been the same since.”
Before dawn on the morning of May 28, 1951, the first day of the trial, Eliza Briggs met her neighbors at St. Mark’s Church in Summerton and joined a caravan of cars headed for Charleston. Black men and women began lining up outside the federal courthouse at sunrise and continued coming all day. By the time the lawyers arrived, the line stretched from the second story courtroom down the hall and stairway, through the lobby, down the front steps, and along the sidewalk. The courtoom seated 150; more than 500 people waited, and more came. Eliza Briggs was guaranteed a seat given that the case bore her family’s name. James Gibson, a farmer who rode over from Clarendon County, was among the hundreds lined up outside. “I never got tired of standing that day,” he said, “During the course of the trial, news found its way to Gibson and the others gathered along the hallway and on the street. “Whenever the NAACP lawyer made a point,” Posten recalled, “someone got up and whispered it to the line, and it would travel down the corridor and down the steps to the throng outside.
The high point of the trial came when Marshall cross-examined one of the defense’s few witnesses, ironically named E.R. Crow. Crow was the director of the three week-old South Carolina Education Finance Commission, hurriedly established to oversee the state’s massive school spending plan [to upgrade black schools.] Marshall peppered Crow with questions. What guarantees were there to ensure that sufficient funds would be spent on black schools? How many blacks served on the new state commission” were there plans to hire any? It was a whithering cross examination, [Robert] Carter recalled, compelling the witness to admit widespread disparity. At the end of each question, Marshall would pronounce “Mr. Crow’s name, allowing blacks in the audience to supply the name ‘Jim’ to Mr. Crow” to their delight. It was a masterly performance.
In his closing argument, Marshall observed: “In South Carolina, you have admitted to the inferiority of Negro schools. All your state officials are white. Your school officials are white. It is admitted. That’s not just segregation. It’s exclusion from the group that runs everything.””
The significance of the case reached beyond whatever the trial court decided. Longtime NAACP board member John Hammond, the musical impresario, attended the hearing and reported at the June board meeting a week later that the NAACP had finally struck “pay dirt” so far as the masses of blacks in the South were concerned. The case affected every black family, as demonstrated by the hundreds who turned out for the trial. For the first time, he said, he felt “the NAACP was able to get the whole story of the futility of segregation before the white southerners and well as the Negroes.” James Hinton [president of the South Carolina NAACP State Conference of branches] wrote that “the very sight of the trial lifted them to a deeper appreciation of the NAACP and its aims and purposes.” For Marshall, Charleston was a measure of how far they had traveled in four short years, when he first began laying the foundation for a frontal attack on Jim Crow. “The Negroes from Clarendon County and from all over the South jammed the courthouse standing shoulder to shoulder hot and uncomfortable, for a single purpose – to demonstrate to all the world that Negroes in the South are determined to eliminate segregation from American life.”
In commemoration of Black History Month and the legacy of the NAACP, the Library of Congress will launch a new online exhibition (myloc.gov/exhibitions/naacp) on Feb. 3 featuring items from its vast NAACP collection. Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Jealous, AARP Vice-President, Multicultural Markets Edna Kane-Williams, and other invited guests, will participate in a special ceremony in the Library’s Coolidge Auditorium in the Jefferson Building, 10 First St., S.E., Washington, D.C. at 10 AM on Feb. 3.
On Feb. 26, the Library of Congress will hold a symposium on the NAACP in room LJ119 of the Jefferson Building from 10 a.m. to noon. Joining me on the panel to discuss “The NAACP: Reflections on the First 100 Years” are Robert L. Zangrando, professor emeritus of history at the University of Akron; and Kenneth W. Mack, professor of law at Harvard University. The symposium will be free and open to the public.