Terrorised by Ku Klux Klan

21st May 2004 at 01:00

Last Monday was a day 93-year-old Viola Pearson never thought she would see. Two buses from the local secondary school pulled up outside her modest bungalow in South Carolina's rural cotton country.

Under a blazing Deep South sun, 100 or so pupils from Scott's Branch high school retraced the arduous daily trek Mrs Pearson's children faced to attend the only local school that admitted blacks.

In 1947, Viola's late husband, Levy, clubbed together with neighbours for a second-hand bus to spare their kids an 18-mile round trip on foot, but couldn't scrape together enough for petrol. He petitioned Clarendon County's school chiefs for help, but they said no, despite having a 30-strong bus fleet to take white students to school.

The case was championed by crack lawyer Thurgood Marshall, who broadened it as Briggs v. Elliot into a challenge to the "separate but equal" doctrine holding sway in US schools, and took it to America's Supreme Court. The 1954 legal victory, known as Brown v. Board, paved the way for the civil rights movement, offering legal grounds for the overturning of so-called Jim Crow laws.

From her driveway, Mrs Pearson pointed to a tree under which her husband plotted the strategy with Mr Marshall who later became the first black judge on America's highest court.

But looking out at the sweltering fields, darker memories stirred. "We had people riding around - Ku Klux Klan," said her daughter Olarlee Pearson, 66, recalling her father's stand. "He used to shoot in the air to disperse them."

"He set up a light so that no one came around to burn the house down," added Olarlee. Other petitioners had their homes torched by white supremacists, she recounts. Her sister, Vinell Pearson-Melms, 55, said death threats kept her from school for a while.

Meanwhile, white businesses boycotted Levy, said Viola. "They wouldn't sell him anything. And his wheat rotted in the field and wood rotted in the ground."

With 13 children, Viola sewed their clothes herself to help the family get by. Floridell Solomon, 65, said her father was evicted from the land he sharecropped after signing the Briggs v. Elliot lawsuit.

Tales of terror, financial ruin and exile seem a far cry from South Carolina's rural idyll today. This week, Scott's Branch pupils followed the Pearsons' footsteps down dirt tracks and country lanes through swaying cornfields seething with crickets. The column of students spread out into a loose-knit phalanx, wilting and perspiring under the beating sun. A bus picked up stragglers.

At 10am, the temperature was already in the late-20s and the humidity oppressive. Marchers drained bottles of ice water at shaded refreshment stations. The march to Scott's Branch's old site was roughly 7.2 miles, two miles less than some Pearson children had to slog daily; and they had to make a return trip after lessons.

In the 1940s, Scott's Branch was a single-room shack without indoor plumbing, said James Pearson, 73. With just one teacher, up to 30 students of all ages were lumped together, said Vinell Pearson-Melms who attended in the 1950s. There were no Hollywood endings after segregation was overturned either.

Southern states defied the ruling and it was only in the mid-60s, forced by federal legislation, that South Carolina integrated its schools. Students braving desegregation in 1957 in Little Rock, Arkansas, ran a gauntlet of violence forcing the deployment of troops to escort them to classes.

As part of a second wave of black students enrolling at white Summerton high in 1966, Leola Parks did not face violence, but was snubbed by classmates and the butt of racial slurs. But as soon as blacks trickled into white schools, there was a white exodus as thousands of inexpensive private schools - dubbed "segregation academies" - sprang up across the South.

Summerton high closed in 1970, the year Mrs Parks left.

"They all went away. A white gentleman said, 'We are leaving and we'll never be back'," she recalls. "It was disappointing. We thought we were moving forward. But we were right back to segregation."

As a legacy of integration's failure, Mrs Parks now works at her old school as executive assistant to the head of Clarendon's education authority, which took over the vacated site. "We're not calling this a celebration (of desegregation), we're calling it a commemoration," she said.

Next week: the struggle against segregation today

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