Equal Access to Education

Levi Pearson wasn’t asking for much when he wrote to the school superintendent Roderick Elliott. He just asked that his children be able to ride a school bus rather than walking 9 miles to school one way. He was denied because African American citizens didn’t pay enough taxes to earn a bus ride. Some African American children had to walk as much as 16 miles one way to attend schools.

The schools for African Americans could in no way be considered separate but equal as mandated by a ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court. Levi requested the help of the NAACP to sue the county. He lost on a technicality. His home was shot at. Banks refused him credit for his farm and he was shunned by his white neighbors.

The NAACP decided to raise the stakes beyond transportation services and attack the overall equality of education. A petition drive was undertaken by Reverend DeLaine and funds were raised nationally. The suit was joined by Reverend DeLaine and a local couple Harry and Eliza Briggs.

The lawsuit was filed in federal court. The judge who would normally have heard the case recommended that the suit be broadened to challenge the separate but equal doctrine itself, not just equality of education.

The lawsuit was rejected on a 2-1 vote by a district panel of judges. The dissenting judge argued that “segregation is per se inequality.” The U.S. Supreme Court originally rejected the case upholding the prior separate but equal doctrine.

The case was returned to the Supreme Court challenging the separate but equal doctrine using the dissenting judge’s earlier argument that segregation is per se inequality. The case was then consolidated with other desegregation cases but was the first one heard by the Supreme Court. The resulting ruling, Brown vs Board of Education, is one of the most notable rulings ever by the Supreme Court. And it began by one man, Levi Pearson, who wanted something better for his children.

The victory was painful for the plaintiffs:

  • Reverend DeLaine and his wife lost their jobs. Their church was burned down. And he escaped an assassination attempt.
  • Henry and Eliza Briggs lost their jobs.
  • All those who signed the petition were fired from their jobs.
  • Levi Pearson could no longer farm his property.
  • The judge who authored the phrase segregation is per se inequality was shunned by the white community and forced to retire.


Nearly 50 years later, the plaintiffs were awarded Congressional Gold Medals in recognition of their fight for justice.

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“Education is the key to opportunity in our society, and the equality of educational opportunity must be the birthright of every citizen.” – Lyndon B Johnson

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