Every morning at 7:15 a.m., the doors of our school open wide to a line of bus riders ready to come inside. “Hello, Jaheem,” I say with a smile. “Hey, Imani. I hope you’re having a good day. I’m glad you’re here.”
I love our students – the sparkle in their early morning eyes, the beauty in the varied colors of their skin, the hope in the fact that they come to school each day. They walk past me to the cafeteria for breakfast. I stand at the doors for a moment and watch the big, yellow buses puff their diesel exhaust and chug their way to the garage until it’s time for their afternoon run.
Is there a more universal symbol for public schools than a big, yellow school bus?
There was a time in the 1940’s when school buses were not so universal. In fact, the Brown v. Board of Education lawsuit began with a school bus in South Carolina. I was getting my master’s degree before I took a civil rights course and learned of Levi Pearson and his determination to get his children and all the other African-American students seats on school buses. The first chapter of Richard Kluger’s monumental book “Simple Justice,” which is about the Brown decision, outlines the steps of the Pearson case.
In 1947, about 74 percent of Clarendon County’s 8,906 public school students were black. There were 30 school buses in the county. All of them were used for white students. When the African-American community asked the superintendent to provide bus transportation for their children, he explained that black citizens didn’t pay much in taxes and it wasn’t fair for white citizens to pay for buses for black children.
So on July 28, 1947, Levi Pearson, a farmer, legally petitioned the superintendent, asking for school buses for African-American children. His three children had to walk to school each day while their white counterparts in school buses passed them by in clouds of dust. The petition was met with months of silence.
On March 16, 1948, attorneys Harold Boulware and Thurgood Marshall filed a brief in U.S. District Court in Florence County, asking the court to prohibit the Clarendon County School District from “making a distinction on account of race and color.” Pearson v. County Board of Education would eventually evolve into Briggs v. Elliott and then into Brown v. Board of Education.
Not only did Mr. Pearson get buses for all of the children in Clarendon County, but also the United States got a little closer to living out it’s most endearing creed: “With liberty and justice for all.”
In 2004, he was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor after U.S. Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-SC) and then-Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-SC) introduced legislation to award the highest congressional honor to the Clarendon County heroes who fought for desegregation. Pearson’s family set up a scholarship fund in his honor to continue to help educate young people in Clarendon County.
To learn more about him and all of those involved in the struggle for civil and human rights in Clarendon County, you can read “Dawn of Desegregation: J.A. De Laine and Briggs v. Elliott” by Ophelia De Laine Gona, and “Uncommon Courage: The Story of Briggs v. Elliott, South Carolina’s Unsung Civil Rights Battle” by James Clyburn and Jennifer Revels.
Around 80 years before Levi Pearson’s petition, the 14th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America was ratified by Congress. Placed in the Constitution to protect former slaves after the Civil War, this amendment continues to remind us that the Constitution is a living document that helps us build a freer, more human world for all people, ALL people – no matter their skin color (see Brown v. Board of Education, May 17, 1954 ), no matter their sexual orientation (see Obergefell v. Hodges, June 26, 2015 ), no matter anything constructed by the prejudices of people and history – and helps us extend the equal protection of the law to everyone.
I offer humble thanks to Levi Pearson and to all the courageous and committed people who work hard to build a world where all people have a seat on the bus of liberty. I offer humble thanks for the 14th Amendment that makes justice possible. I climb aboard that bus with them.