Perhaps one of the lesser-known pioneers of the early Civil Rights Movement is a man named Joseph Armstrong DeLaine. Born in 1898 near Manning, South Carolina, and a 1931 graduate of Allen University, DeLaine would eventually become the pastor of Liberty Hill A.M.E. Church located in nearby Summerton, South Carolina. It is there where he, along with a group of parishioners and other residents, would play a significant role in the battle against school segregation via Briggs v. Elliott.
The Rev. Joseph DeLaine, Levi Pearson, and Harry Briggs (for whom the suit is named) are listed as plaintiffs in a case that tested faith, birthed courage, and changed the lives of the Clarendon County community where the case originated. Frustrated with being denied transportation for African-American children who walked nine miles past stretches of corn fields and rows of cotton to arrive at “shacks for schools,” DeLaine filed suit in federal court in 1948.
Previously, Summerton public school official R. M. Elliott (the defendant) responded to the plaintiffs with: “We ain’t got no money to buy a bus for your nigger children.” In 1951, the Rev. DeLaine led the charge in challenging the courts after the NAACP’s then-chief legal counsel, Thurgood Marshall, visited Liberty Hill A.M.E. Church to help persuade several parents to signing a petition for what would become Briggs v. Elliott. The case merged with four others and became part of the historic Brown v. Board of Education. Even though the landmark decision was handed down in 1954, schools were still not fully desegregated.
The president of the White Citizens’ Council founded Clarendon Hall, an all-White private school, as a way to avoid lawful submission to desegregation. However, bravery came with a cost and many Black supporters were targets for retaliation. One African-American teacher whose father signed the petition lost her job. Farmers were refused store credit. Families were forced to move. DeLaine lost his job, his home in Summerton was set on fire by Klansmen, and the A.M.E. church had to transfer him to Lake City, South Carolina. Nevertheless, the move was not far enough as it did not deter night-rider attacks on his new home.
On October 10, 1955, DeLaine fought back during one such attack by returning gun fire. For his act of self-defense, a warrant for “Assault and Battery with Intent to Kill” was issued against him and him only. The clergyman was forced to leave his home state inside a casket aboard a train bound for New York where he and his wife and children settled for a time before moving to Charlotte, North Carolina. He would later write the FBI to explain that he did not flee to “escape justice, but to escape injustice.” He never returned to South Carolina. Although DeLaine passed away in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1974, the warrant remained in effect and was not dropped until October 2000.
Ironically, and over 60 years later, the grandson of R. M. Elliott, the man who had told poor Black families there was no money for their “nigger children,” did some petitioning of his own. In 2017, Joseph Elliott petitioned for a statue honoring the Rev. DeLaine. Carl Elliott, a cousin, wrote in a New York Times article: “A statue of DeLaine won’t undo the wrongs of the past, but it would at least signal our commitment to do better in the future.”