THE BLOG

Charleston Then

06/30/2015 03:27 pm ET | Updated Jun 27, 2016

What I remember most about Charleston in 1963: the August heat that no courtroom fan could defeat and my NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) colleague Connie Motley, a woman I once described as " solid as an oak tree...who suffered little nonsense" from segregationists. The Supreme Court declared school segregation unconstitutional in 1954--one of the cases came from South Carolina--but nine years later no black child had stepped foot in an previously white school.

An enraged J. Arthur Brown, the state NAACP president, organized a small group to sue the Charleston school board. The case dragged on and was finally named for his daughter, Millicent; when it was called for trial Mrs. Motley--later the first black female federal judge in American history-- and I were sent by LDF to represent the children and their parents.

At first, there was nothing different about the case than dozens of others we had brought across the South. There could be no factual dispute about the District policy of segregation. The real question was how much desegregation Kennedy appointee Robert Martin, a man who was rumored to carry a gun beneath his judicial robes, would order, and how long a delay he would countenance.

But then there was a shocking development. White parents retained a Washington lawyer, George Leonard, to intervene in the case. Funded by mysterious right wing sources, with the judge's permission he would present factual "proof" that the Supreme Court's 1954 decision was wrong: it need not be followed because the decision assumed blacks and whites were created equal but blacks were in fact inferior beings.

Leonard brought with him well paid, on the fringe academics who testified that Negro brain weights were consistently lower than whites--more like dolphins--and that black and white children were so different in capacity and behavior that they could not go to school together. One witness opined that school integration would produce high crime rates, social disruption and poor health.

There was no jury in a case like this and the Judge could have barred the testimony but he let the interveners have their day in court so that they couldn't complain later they weren't heard. Because the testimony was mostly junk science and certainly legally irrelevant, we declined to cross exam the witnesses. But it was difficult to sit silently and listen to what was really coded hate speech, especially as the jury box was filled-- this being the first serious effort to get the state to integrate -- with reporters avidly scribbling in their notebooks.

After the "experts" testified, the local superintendent of schools, Thomas Carrere, took the stand. I expected Mrs. Motley might ask him about the logistics of converting a dual system to a unitary non-racial one but to my surprise she was only interested in one question: You've heard the testimony. Do you agree that the Negro children you were hired to educate are so different than whites that they can't learn together?

Panic spread across Carrere's face. Here was a man torn between his calling and his need for a job. He mumbled something about how he had to believe what he'd just heard from the witnesses. When she was finished with him, he left the stand, passing between this tall and beautiful black woman and the jury box, but at that very moment she fixed a stare at the journalists and speaking in a voice they could plainly hear she laid the man down: "You should be ashamed of yourself."

At her words, the superintendent physically cringed and fled the courtroom. If the judge heard what she had said, he gave no indication of it. After the trial, he basically ignored the racial "science" and ordered 11 black students to enter the white schools the following month.

Millicent Brown is a history professor at a local college. She was one of two black girls who soon integrated the white Rivers high school but while she made one close white friend like many pioneers Brown found the experience painful and isolating. Judging by the quick and soulful response to recent tragedy, Charleston is a different place today than it was in 1963. I certainly hope so.

*Michael Meltsner teaches law at Northeastern University School of law. He was first assistant counsel at the Legal Defense Fund in the sixties.