James E. Clyburn represents South Carolina’s sixth congressional District in the U.S. House, where he serves as the Assistant Democratic Leader. After reading an opinion piece by a rising sophomore at Duke University, Ehime Ohue, Clyburn wrote his perspective on the long history of segregated and inequitable schools in his home state.
— Susan Svrluga
Ms. Ehime Ohue’s opinion piece in The Washington Post on July 6 brings into high relief the fact that South Carolina continues to provide inadequate basic preparation to significant numbers of its talented and highly motivated students.
I began my professional career 55 years ago as a teacher in an underfunded, segregated public school in Charleston, South Carolina. I encountered many talented and highly motivated students who, like Ms. Ohue, were eager to learn.
For many of them, the state did not provide the resources they deserved.
Sadly, that has been the case throughout South Carolina’s history.
After centuries of perpetuating a master-servant economic and educational system, South Carolina held a Constitutional Convention after the Civil War in 1868 and adopted a resolution — proposed by a former slave, Robert Smalls — to provide state-sponsored, free public education for ALL of its citizens. This radical concept was opposed by the state’s elite for decades.
A later Constitutional Convention scuttled the concept in 1895, and in 1898, the U.S. Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson made “separate but equal” the law of the land.
Of course, its implementation was much more separate than equal. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court in its Brown v. Board of Education decision reversed that concept.
Implementation of the Brown decision, which originated in South Carolina as Briggs v. Elliott, has undergone hundreds of fits and starts, many of them taking three steps forward and two steps backward; and some of them taking one step forward and two steps backward. It has been tortuous in many states and deadly in others. South Carolina is no exception.
Lake Marion High School is in Orangeburg County Consolidated School District Three, one of the eight school districts that filed a lawsuit against the State of South Carolina in 1993 seeking equitable funding for their schools.
That case, Abbeville County School District v. South Carolina languished for 21 years before the State Supreme Court decided to “bell the cat,” as might be said in “Gullah/Geechee” country, and handed down a decision in 2014 in favor of the plaintiffs.
The State Supreme Court held that South Carolina was in violation of its constitutional requirement to provide “minimally adequate” educational opportunities to all of its citizens. To help reach the minimally adequate requirements the court suggested that, among other things, South Carolina should consider consolidating its 81 school districts into either one per county or even cross-county districts.
The resistance to that suggestion has been visceral in some instances, and rather nonchalant in others. I do not pretend that it would cure the funding inequities that have shortchanged Ms. Ohue and thousands of others in South Carolina, but it might be a good start. When one reads some of the comments posted in response to Ms. Ohue’s sentiments, however, it can be readily understood why some legislators and other elected officials feel emboldened in their recalcitrance to do so.
Although the South Carolina General Assembly seems reluctant to address consolidation, it has taken steps to address some of the funding issues. Members admit that much more needs to be done, but have asked the Court to stop overseeing their efforts. I understand their reasoning, but one need only reflect upon South Carolina’s troubled past to appreciate the need for the Court to demur to that request.
I was not surprised to read Ms. Ohue’s expressions of unquiet love for her home state. I met her last August at the 26th annual scholarship banquet of the Rudolph Canzater Memorial Classic, founded to help students like her. I am pleased they were able to provide assistance to help Ms. Ohue attend Duke University.
Her essay validates the efforts and vindicates the generous investments of the scores of sponsors and hundreds of participants in the annual Canzater Classic. But validations and vindications notwithstanding, it behooves all of us to be vigilant.
From Brown through Abbeville, over the last 63 years, courts have admonished South Carolina for inequities in its educational system.
I join Ms. Ohue in urging our home state to meet its constitutional, legal and moral obligations to provide adequate educational experiences to ALL its children, in ALL its schools, in ALL its districts.