Separate but Equal (1991)



Director:    George Stevens Jr.

Starring:    Sidney Poitier (Thurgood Marshall), Burt Lancaster (John W. Davis), Richard Kiley (Chief Justice Earl Warren), Cleavon Little (Robert L. 'Bob' Carter), Gloria Foster (Vivian 'Buster' Marshall), John McMartin (Governor James F. Byrnes), Graham Beckel (Josiah C. Tulley), Ed Hall (Reverend J.A. Delaine), Lynne Thigpen (Ruth Alice Stovall), Macon McCalman (W.B. Springer), Randle Mell (Charles L. Black, Jr.), Henderson Forsythe (Justice Robert Jackson), Cheryl Lynn Bruce (Gladys Hampton), Tommy Hollis (Harry Briggs Sr.), John Rothman (Jack Greenberg).

This is the story of the N.A.A.C.P's legal team that beat the forces of "separate but equal" school facilities.



Spoiler Warning:

Clarendon County. South Carolina, 1950.

"In South Carolina in the early 1950s the children who went to the Scotts Branch school had no way of knowing that their school  and their story would one day have a place in the history books of their country."

The school bell is rung and the children come into the school house.  A small boy named Harry Jr. is brought by his father to school late.  The father explains that his son has to walk five miles to school and five miles back home  He's usually so tired out that he just falls asleep while trying to do his homework.

As Harry walks home, he is passed by school buses that are only for the white school children.  The man in charge, the Reverend Delaine of the school decides to go in to see Superintendent Springer.  He gets to see him and he tells the superintendent that his school needs a school bus.  The superintendent starts talking about how expensive education is with this cost and that cost. The Reverend says all they need is one bus.  After all, the white children have 30 buses.  Springer says:  "We just ain't got any money for buses for your nigger children."

The Reverend goes over to Harry Sr.'s place.  He introduces to Harry the lawyer Mr. Bullwer.  The lawyer explains to the parent that he is requesting school bus transportation to be furnished and maintained out of the Public School District number 26 of Clarendon County for the use of his son and other children in the neighborhood.  Harry asks if this might have to go to court?  It's a possibility.  Harry signs the petition. 

The next morning the Reverend and the lawyer go down to the county courthouse with their petition.   

Superintendent rushes over in his car to confront the Reverend.  Springer says that Harry Briggs, Sr. is suing him personally.  He says that the Reverend is not going to get what he wants by going through the courts.  All he's going to get is a bunch of problems that no one wants.  He tells the reverend that he better calls those people off and he's going to hold Delaine personally responsible for this.   

A group of white men talks outside the church.  One man says that lawyer Josiah C. Tulley's the smartest son of a bitch in the whole southeastern United States. 

There's a problem with the bus petition.  Harry Briggs pays his taxes in District 5, but the school is in District 22.  The lawyer says he talked to one of the top N.A.A.C.P. lawyers and he is prepared to leave New York and come down to South Carolina to talk about this case.  He's won cases in the South. 

A train pulls into Charleston, South Carolina and the lawyer Thurgood Marshall gets off.  A man is there to greet him and take the lawyer to see Rev. DeLaine.  Thurgood tells the church group that it's risky to put one man out front in the cause because the whites can find ways to disqualify him.  He says if they can get twenty people here to sign a complaint against the school board, the N.A.A.C.P. will bring a case here.  The people are scared of making the whites mad at them because they are so economically dependent upon the whites. 

Thurgood says they have already brought up cases in Kansas and Virginia.  And, if they get 20 signatures, they will start a case right here.  Thurgood doesn't get his 20 signatures right away, but he is hopeful that he will get those signatures.  Now he is headed back to his New York City to sleep in his own bed. 

Thurgood goes to his office to work.  There he gets a telephone call from Rev. DeLaine saying that he is going after those 20 signatures.  Thurgood is happy to hear that and he tells his colleagues that they have to dig up everything they possibly can about the public schools in South Carolina.  A colleague warns Thurgood that taking up a case against the public schools is going to be a lot harder than were a couple of university graduate schools.  Thurgood says:  "That preacher's got guts."

The good reverend goes all over the county searching for signatures.  He starts having some luck and the KKK leave a message for him on his car windshield, saying that the KKK will get him, if he doesn't stop.  A pick-up truck with two white men in it runs the reverend off the road. 

The governor of South Carolina is very agitated over the N.A.A.C.P. law suit against the public school system of Clarendon County.  He asks the superintendent of schools why is it that Clarendon County is the only county in the entire state bringing a law suit against the public schools.  He tells the superintendent to get his house in order.  The superintendent leaves the room.  The governor talks to J. C. Tulley about what to do about this situation. 

One night Thurgood returns to his apartment.  He flicks on a light and there is a large group of people yelling at him:  "Surprise!"  It's a surprise birthday party.  His birthday gift is a model train set-up complete with model mountains, trees and a railway station  Thurgood is very pleased and he tells his guests that his father was a Pullman Porter for some 35 years.  When he was a boy he dreamed of becoming a railroad engineer.  When he was 20 years old, his father got him a job as a waiter on the train. 

The superintendent of schools goes to see Rev. DeLaine.  Mr. Springer says he may be able to get the local school a school bus so that their children don't tire themselves out from so much walking.  The reverend says this is a lot bigger issue now than just school buses.  Springer says he has talked to the governor and they are going to do a lot around here to make things better.  And they'll do it as soon as the reverend calls off all the legal shenanigans.  The reverend gets out of his chair and says:  "It's gone too far, Mr. Springer.  We're not turning back."

Briggs gets fired from his job by the white owner.

In New York City they now have the Clarendon petition with its 66 signatures.  The colleagues debate whether they should challenge segregation school district by school district of which there are more than 11,000.  Thurgood says they will challenge school segregation on a national basis, but will start with a few example schools, such as in Clarendon County. 

Springer comes to the school and tells Rev. DeLaine that this new black man, named Martin, is now the principal of the school.  The school board thought it was the time for a  change. 

DeLaine lets all the kids go home early.  He starts cleaning out his office. 

A woman reporter from the Detroit Advocate expresses her concern to Thurgood that they fear that he is going too far and too fast with this school issue case in South Carolina.  Thurgood says they are being very cautious in their approach.  That makes the reporter happy and she tells Thurgood that in that case, he has their support.  Mrs. Marshall tells her husband in private that he is "tiptoeing".  Thurgood denies that and says he has gotten all kinds of complaints from people who are mad because they are not following their particular favorite idea. 

Charleston, South Carolina.  November 17, 1950.  Judge Waring tells Thurgood and his colleagues that he wants the N.A.A.C.P. lawyers to refile the case.  This is so because in their arguments, they keep bringing up that school segregation is harmful to Negro students.  Now one judge alone can't decide if a state law conflicts with the constitution of the United States.  So the lawyers will just have to rewrite the case against school segregation by race and file the case to be heard with a three-judge court.

How are the lawyers going to prove that school segregation harms their clients?  By getting expert witnesses to testify as to the damage actually done to the students. 

They pick up social scientist Kenneth Clark to be one of their witnesses.  They pick him up at the railway depot in Charleston.   Clark has permission from Judge Waring to run his experiment with the school children of Clarendon County.  The children of color pick out the white doll as the doll with the nice color or chose the white doll as having the preferred color.  This shows that the white dolls are seen as better than the black dolls even among black children. 

Rev. DeLaine goes to the segregated movie theater to see and hear what the newsreel says about the South Carolina case.  Some of the people clap and a black man down in the white section has to tell them to be quiet.

Charleston, South Carolina.  May 28, 1951.  The three judge court begins.  Thurgood asks the superintendent of schools, on the stand:  "Is it not true that you spend $179 dollar on each white child and $43 dollars on each Negro child?"  Lawyer Tulley gets up and says that the state just found out recently about the inequality in South Carolina's schools and they want to concede this point.  Thurgood jumps up to say:  "Your Honor, what we see here is an attempt by the defense to prevent us from developing our case.  For us to prove that South Carolina's segregation statutes are unconstitutional, we must be permitted to present evidence showing that our clients are damaged as a result of these laws.  We have gone to great expense to bring expert witnesses here."

Judge Parker rules that Mr. Marshall can present his expert witnesses.  So the plaintiffs bring out Dr. Clark.  He says the system of segregation make black students suffer from confusion in the children's concepts of their own self-esteem.  Another witness says the consequences of segregation can actually cause Negro children to, in fact, be inferior compared to white children because the segregation system harms the Negro children in every aspect of their life. 

The defense puts on a witness who was just recently appointed to see to it that the white and colored schools are equal.  The man testifies that in his opinion if whites and coloreds went to the same school there would be chaos.  Moreover, the South Carolina state legislature would no longer allot money to the public schools.  Thurgood points out that the official is not qualified to give expert testimony on these points.  Moreover, the official grew up in a segregated system and has a bias against the very idea of racial integration.  Thurgood gets the man to admit that his learned bias against integration does color his view of this matter. 

In closing arguments, Thurgood makes the point that the system of segregation is not just segregation, but exclusion from the group that runs everything. The Negro child is made to go to an inferior school which makes him feel inferior.

A rock is thrown through Judge Waring's dining room window.  The judge looks outside and sees a cross being burned on his lawn, a warning from the KKK. 

The court rules against the plaintiffs.  "The Court believes that one of the great virtues of our constitutional system is that it leaves to the states the solution of local problems.  It is well settled by the Supreme Court that there is no denial of equal protection of the law in segregating children, if the children are given equal facilities.  Therefore, an injunction to abolish segregation is denied."

Judge Waring dissents from the decision.  He says: segregation can never produce equality.  It is an evil that must be eradicated.

After the court case is over, lawyer Tulley tells Thurgood Marshall that if he ever shows his face in Clarendon County again, he's a dead man. 

Thurgood's wife has cancer.  He says he wants to stay home to care for her, but she says no.  She wants him to carry on with their work on civil rights. 

The reporter from the Detroit Advocate tells Thrugood that he should be working within the separate but equal doctrine and just work on the equal part of the doctrine, and leave the separate part alone.  Thurgood asks her if she really believes that blacks will get equality while still being separate from the whites?  The woman says she doesn't believe in separate anything, but she knows they can get a lot of money for Negro schools through challenging the lack of equality in the separate but equal system. 

The governor of South Carolina comes to visit his old friend John Davis on Long Island, New York.  Davis had just won a big Supreme Court decision for the steel companies.  The governor asks Davis to be the lawyer for the separate but equal system before the Supreme Court. 

Rev. DeLaine's house is set on fire.  The fire department arrives, but they tell DeLaine that they can't help him because his house is just over the line of their fire district.  DeLaine does complain, but they won't do anything for him and let his house burn down.  They just simply drive away from the fire.

Washington, D.C., April 1952.   Taking place is a debate where one side says that they should not challenge segregation in the south, but just get money for separate Negro schools to make them more equal to the white schools.  One of Thurgood's law partners asks the question of how can they continue to justify a segregated society?  They must attack segregation head-on.  Most of the crowd supports the idea of not challenging segregation itself.

Thurgood gets up and says that the N.A.A.C.P. has already decided to fight, to strike down segregation.  Let the Supreme Court decide!  Thurgood turns the tide of opinion in the room and he gets a standing ovation. 

John Davis's daughter tells her father that she doesn't want him to take the segregation case.  The times are changing and the south is going to have to change with the rest of the country.  Unfortunately, John Davis also doesn't want to change with the times.  He defends the racist position of states' rights being the important doctrine that must be upheld.  A man who will push for a racist doctrine is a racist.  John Davis is a racist no matter how much he tries to deny it. 

The question of segregation will go before the Supreme Court in the case of Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka Kansas and other Boards.

Washington D.C., December 9, 1952.  Thurgood will deal with the Summerton, South Carolina case.  His colleagues will deal with the other four cases. 

At lunch break Thurgood says he is disappointed in his presentation:  "The one thing I wanted to do was find a way to talk about the principle, convince them that segregation is morally wrong, that there is no such thing as separate equality."

John Davis thinks he has won his case.

Dwight D. Eisenhower is sworn in as the next President of the United States.

The nine justices meet to discuss the case.  One of the issues some of the judges worry about is the problem of possible mass resistance in the south against school desegregation. 

Justice Frankfurter wants a re-hearing.  He tells the other judges:  "I propose that we ask counsel on both sides to come back and re-argue the case, focusing on this question:  what evidence is there that the framers contemplated or did not contemplate that the 14th Amendment would abolish segregation in the public schools?"

So Thurgood, his colleagues and their staff go to their battle stations and try to get expert witnesses on history.  Meanwhile, John Davis is certain that the framers never wanted to desegregate the public schools. 

The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Vinson dies of a heart attack at the age of 63. 

Eisenhower appoints California's Governor Warren to the position of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

The historians working with Thurgood are very pessimistic about finding anything that can show that the framers ever considered the abolishment of segregation in the public schools.  So, they decide to bypass the court's question and argue on moral grounds that segregation is evil and destructive. 

Mr. Kelly reading a history book finds something very important.  The Radical Republic Thaddeus Stevens said:  "Where any state makes distinctions between different classes of individuals, congress shall have the power to correct such discriminations in inequality. No distinction will be tolerated in this purified republic, but what rose from merit and conduct." 

Washington, D.C., December 7, 1953.  The court hears the re-arguments.  When the justices meet again they say about the same things they did the first time they met on the matter. 

A black aide shows the Chief Justice the battlefield of Gettysburg.  Warren stays in the motel over night.  When he comes out in the morning his finds his aide sleeping in the back of the car.  He was unable to find a motel where he could sleep overnight. 

Warren goes in to talk with Frankfurter.  He says that the court must vote for desegregation.  This is a moral issue.  Frankfurter sides with Warren.  He then says Warren must speak with Jackson and get him on their side.  Then go after Clark and then Stanley Reed, the most difficult of the justices to turn.  A big problem is that the justices are blinded by their own legal training.  They are blind to the moral argument to a serious degree.  Warren does not have that legal training and can see what should be obvious to any non-racist person. 

Warren goes to Clark and Clark says that he will vote for de-segregation.  Now the only two holdouts are Reed and Jackson.  Jackson has a heart attack. 

Warren goes to see Jackson in the hospital.  Jackson is resting, so Warren leaves his brief with another man to give to Jackson when he's feeling better.  Warren returns and talks to Jackson.  Jackson will vote for desegregation.

Only Stanley Reed holds out.  Warren talks to him. 

Thurgood and others rush down to Washington, D. C. 

It's a unanimous decision against segregation of public schools on the basis of race.  A happy day for those who believe in the equality of all men and a very sad day for the racists. 

Thurgood telephones his wife to tell her that they did it. 

Rev. Delaine and Mr. Briggs get out of the car they are riding in and say a prayer to God for this day. 

John Davis takes the news with a bit of humor. 

In 1967 Thurgood Marshall was appointed an associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court.  Mrs. Marshall died about one year after the famous Supreme Court decision.  Harry Briggs, Jr. never got to go to a desegregated school.  This film is dedicated to the lawyers of the N.A.A.C.P.  Legal Defense Fund who devoted their lives to the struggle for equal opportunity in America.



The N.A.A.C.P. is a fairly conservative black organization.  It believes in working within the system to bring about change.  And so the N.A.A.C.P pushed for changes in school segregation through the legal channels.  Thurgood Marshall, who later became the first black on the U.S. Supreme Court, was the most prominent of the N.A.A.C.P lawyers that won the case before the U.S. Supreme Court.  

Perhaps at times one might be tempted to credit the N.A.A.C.P. with the victories brought about by the Civil Rights Movement.  But the N.A.A.C.P. was too conservative to lead a civil rights movement.  Marshall himself thought Martin Luther King was nothing more than a rabble rouser.  The N.A.A.C.P. wanted to keep using just the legal channels.   (Over time, of course, they changed their opinions.)

If not for the King movement, the N.A.A.C.P.'s so-called victory would have never amounted to anything as the South would have negated any attempts to desegregate in any meaningful way. And they certainly never would have gotten all those civil rights laws through the legislature. The 1954 Supreme Court decision of Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka Kansas and other Boards was the opening of that window of opportunity through which the Civil Rights movement poured, not the actual legislative accomplishments themselves.

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 



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