The Road to Washington -- Manning High School Marches On

02/19/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Lester Sloan Writer/Photographer and professor of photojournalism at Savannah State University

Sunday morning, students gathered in the cafeteria of Manning High School while two rain-spattered Lancaster tour buses parked outside, waiting to ferry them to Washington D.C. Twenty-nine parents would go along as chaperones. The band's director, Ray Francis, scurried about making sure that all eighty-five band members were present and chowing down on a breakfast of grits, eggs and bacon. The scheduled departure time of 11:00 A.M. was less than an hour away. People from surrounding counties had braved the rain-laden skies to come and see them off.

Manning High's band, in a city of a little more than 5,000, had been selected as the sole representative of the state of South Carolina to perform in the 56th Inaugural parade for president-elect Barack Obama. It would be their fourth time playing for Obama since his first visit to Clarendon County capital city on November 2nd, 2007.

Obama's November visit there was no coincidence. It was at the Clarendon courthouse that the lawsuit Briggs v. Elliot was filed on November 11th, 1949. That lawsuit, the first of four suits, would be at the forefront in the Supreme Court decision banning racial segregation in US. public schools. That fight was led by another band of sorts, a band of citizens, totaling 107, and their three lawyers, Thurgood Marshal, Robert L. Carter and Harold L. Bowler who prepared the brief that became Brown v. the Board of Education.

This band of citizens got a different kind of greeting for their symbolic march against segregation. The historical record bears this out: The Briggs case evoked an extreme reaction. All of the petitioners suffered swift and severe hardships for their courage. Harry Briggs was fired from his job. Annie Gibson lost her job as a motel maid and her husband lost land that had been in his family for eight decades. Rev. DeLaine saw his home burned to the ground. Federal Judge Walter Waring, who sided with the petitioners' concerns, was forced to leave the state by a joint resolution of the South Carolina House of Representatives.

According to aides of the then Democratic candidate Obama, some 1,200 people, roughly a fourth of Manning's population, showed up at the Clarendon County Court house to hear this year's president-elect speak. He was introduced by former State Supreme Court Justice Ernest Finney, one of the state's first black lawmakers. During his speech, Obama praised civil rights leaders and those who fought against segregation more than 50 years before his arrival on the scene.

"I know I stand on their shoulders," the then Illinois senator told the crowd. "It would have been easy for them to stay home, to heed the voices of caution and convenience that said, 'the time isn't right.' It would have been easy for them to give in to their fears that kept them up at night."

On that visit Obama picked up the baton that was once wielded by Marshal in his march to the Supreme Court, first as a lawyer, then as a Justice. And he reminded the audience and the members of the new band of student citizens that the dreams of the civil rights activists remained unfulfilled in what he called "South Carolina's corridor of shame."

Obama pointed out that South Carolina has the highest drop out rate in America: One in four students drop before their senior year. "Dilapidated schools still attest to an unequal education for blacks. We're going to reform the 'No Child Left Behind Act' by not leaving the funding for the program behind."

Because of what he said and when he said it, lots of Carolinians, past and present, see Manning's selection as one of the Inauguration's marching bands as a little more than just drum beats and cadence. "This is about more than blowing a horn and beating drum," says 61-year old Nathaniel Briggs of Teaneck, New Jersey-- who was just two years old when his father, mother, sister and brother signed the petition that bears the family name. "I asked if I could ride the bus with the band and was told there was no room." It seemed that marching along with the band was also not an option. According to band director, Ray Francis, there was talk of making up a banner saying "From the court house to the White House."

Briggs remains philosophical about his participation in the parade as he and his wife prepared to drive to Washington for the inauguration from their New Jersey residence. The normal four-hour drive to a daughter's home in Maryland will be extended by an extra hour because of the weather. As for flying the family colors in the parade, his niece Angela Smith will be representing her Army unit, and, by extension, the Briggs' family. The theme for the inauguration is "Restoring America's Promise."

Carrie Sinkler-Parker is a resident of South Carolina, and proud member of the National Council of Negro Women, a 70-year old organization founded by Mary McCloud Bethume, a civil rights activists/educator for more than four decades. Parker not only attended the same College (Barber-Scotia College in Concord,North Carolina), but resided in the same room as the organization's founder. "Our bond is both institutional and spiritual," says Parker, who is president of a local section and a regional director.

In a yet unpublished letter to the editor local paper in Clarendon County, she speaks of those events and for those historic figures who marched to a different cadence during another time: "The euphoria has caused people to forget where it all began. This has tainted our abilities to begin asking questions and have family and community discussions around why was the Clarendon County Courthouse chosen by the campaign staff to host a rally. For some issues there seems to be an underlying reason for things to happen. Any person that followed President-elect Obama's campaign trail will tell you it was based on past events in this country. A series of events that led to National Events has its roots in Clarendon County, South Carolina."

It's more than appropriate that Manning High School Golden Pride Marching band will be high-stepping in this inauguration. In the words of U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, Democrat of South Carolina: "I believe it is very fitting that a high school from the country that launched Brown v. board of Education should perform in the parade celebrating the election of the first African American president."