It was the doll test, in the end.
In a bypassed place in a bygone era, a psychologist named Kenneth Clark gave black boys and girls at Scott's Branch Elementary School in rural Clarendon County, S.C., black and white dolls. The kids, who attended all-black segregated schools, wanted to play with the white dolls, calling them "nice" and the black dolls "bad."
It was the emotional undoing of the "separate but equal" clauses of constitutional law, school education and American life, and a key finding in Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling that changed U.S. history.
Yesterday afternoon in the soft light of the Capitol Rotunda, the nation's most distinguished civilian award was presented to the four parents in Clarendon County who filed the first lawsuit against school segregation that later became the foundation of the Brown case.
Harry and Eliza Briggs, the Rev. Joseph A. DeLaine and Levi Pearson were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal posthumously.
Pearson's widow, Viola Pearson, and the children of other plaintiffs collected the medals. The ceremony, with speeches by the political leadership of both House and Senate and the congressional leadership of South Carolina, played to a near-capacity crowd of more than 400.
"He was a man with a large heart, of great faith, who was willing to make sacrifices," Ferdinand Pearson said of his father, a cotton and tobacco farmer.
When Viola Pearson stood to collect the medal on behalf of her husband -- and then held it over her head for the room to see -- the crowd erupted in an emotional standing ovation.
"I had tears in my eyes," said Harry Briggs Jr., then a schoolchild in Clarendon County and now a 63-year-old security guard at Madison Square Garden and Shea Stadium. "I was just remembering years back -- what all my father went through."
It was not a pleasant memory. Summerton, S.C., population a little over 1,000, sits in Clarendon County at the intersection of state roads 15 and 301, a few miles up from Interstate 95 and about 100 miles east of Columbia.
It is poor now; it was poorer then.
Ethel Pearson and her extended family lived outside of town, at a spot on the road called Davis Station. They had to walk nine miles to get to Scott's Branch Elementary School each day.
"The white kids, they used to throw rocks at us from their bus when they went by," she remembered yesterday.
In 1947, a minister named Joseph DeLaine came to see her father, Hammitt, a farmer, about pressing the county to pay for gas for a school bus to take the black children to their segregated school. When the county refused, she said her father deferred the filing of the lawsuit to his brother, Levi.
"Daddy was a little bit of a hothead, and he told Uncle Levi he should file it, because if he got put in jail, Daddy could come get him out," she laughed. "He said if they came to arrest him, Levi would never be able to get him out."
The fears of retaliation were, if anything, understated.
When these families and others filed one suit in 1947, then refiled it as Briggs v. Elliott in 1949, the white community responded en masse. Harry Briggs was fired from his job as a gas station attendant. Eliza Briggs was fired from her job as a hotel chambermaid.
Banks cut off Levi Pearson's credit for his farming operation. White farmers refused to lend him harvesting equipment.
DeLaine got death threats and shots fired into his home. When he fired back, he was charged with attempted murder and had to flee the state. The warrant for his arrest was not dropped until 2000 -- 26 years after his death.
Despite the celebratory air of yesterday afternoon, no one was saying equality in U.S. society had been fully reached -- even in the place where the fight began.
Some schools in Clarendon County are well integrated today, but in the school at the heart of it all -- where the doll test and its reverberations started -- things never seemed to get off the ground.
At Scott's Branch High School, the school's Web site shows, 475 of its 504 students are black. About 80 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
Meanwhile, a Christian academy established in 1965 remains nearly all white.
"This lawsuit changed America . . . but it didn't change Clarendon County," said Joseph A. DeLaine Jr., 72, who runs a charitable foundation established by the families who filed the suit. "It seems that 50 years later, a kind of complacency has set in. The dropout rate is the highest in the state. The test scores are below average. There's no righteous indignation on the part of the citizens, or much concern from the power structure. Today is a historic day, but we just can't forget that."