WASHINGTON – Four blacks whose lawsuit helped integrate schools nationwide in 1954 didn’t intend to start a revolution.
They didn’t set out to be civil rights heroes who struggled against discrimination before Rosa Parks and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. took up the cause.
The Rev. Joseph De Laine, Harry and Eliza Briggs, and Levi Pearson were run out of South Carolina for their desire to see black children in Clarendon County get on school buses like white children could.
On Wednesday, the four were posthumously awarded the legislative branch’s highest civilian honor, the Congressional Gold Medal. Their descendants collected the medals.
After South Carolina courts rejected their lawsuits to integrate schools, the four leaders merged their suits with a national effort that culminated in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision ordering public schools to desegregate.
“The whites had new buses, new everything. We were paying taxes, but we weren’t getting anything,” said Eloise Wineglass, Pearson’s daughter who is a nurse in Hillside, N.J. “When the bus broke down, we were walking to school nine miles and walking nine miles back.”
De Laine’s church was burned and shots were fired into his home. Pearson, a farmer, was refused loans and was shot at. Briggs was a gas station attendant and his wife, Eliza, was a motel maid. They were fired.
At least 200 people have received the Congressional Gold Medal since 1776, including President George Washington, Parks, the Wright brothers and Thomas Edison.