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As Brown vs. Board turns 60, Monongahela man's role in litigation recalled

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Saturday, May 17, 2014, 12:26 a.m.
 

Judge Livingstone Johnson was presiding over a trial in Allegheny County in May 1973 when he hurriedly ordered a recess.

Johnson got in his car and drove south, arriving at the Washington County Courthouse in time to see President Judge Charles Sweet swear in Paul Simmons as a Washington County Common Pleas judge.

Like Simmons, Johnson had roots in Monongahela, where his grandfather, the Rev. Joseph Edward Morris, formerly was pastor of the Bethel A.M.E. Church.

“Judge Simmons' family and my family go back three generations in my time,” said Johnson, whose aunt lived in Monongahela after retirement and is buried in Belle Vernon Cemetery.

The two distinguished judges talked from time to time about constitutional law.

One subject they discussed, Johnson recalled, was Simmons' role in a South Carolina case that paved the way for the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. That case, with its roots in Topeka, Kan., resulted in the high court declaring that state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students were unconstitutional.

The landmark decision is marking its 60th anniversary.

Shortly after graduating from Harvard University in 1949, Simmons accepted a position at South Carolina State College, a historically black school.

In his class, Simmons encouraged free discussion of legal issues. During one of those classes, a student asked Simmons for advice on a case in which the student and some classmates were involved.

Simmons advised the students about where and how to initiate the first federal legal challenge to the constitutional doctrine of separate but equal, according to Simmons' biography.

Specifically, Simmons advised the students to raise the case in a county so poverty stricken that the county could not afford two separate-but-equal school districts. Clarendon County, S.C., fit that description.

That argument was adopted by Harold Bouleware – an attorney for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People – in the historic case Briggs v. Elliot.

It was the first of the five cases eventually combined into Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.

“I can recall he made mention of the fact they had some difficulty getting litigants to agree to be named as plaintiffs in the Clarenden County case because of threats from the white community against anyone who dared to bring up the case,” Johnson said.

“He said they called churches to speak to people, to encourage them to understand although there was a risk in bringing the suit, nevertheless the need to bring about change was so great that they implored parents to permit their children to be plaintiffs for the suit.”

Eventually, 20 plaintiffs joined the suit, including Harold Briggs. Johnson noted that Simmons was among several attorneys who filed the suit.

Gwendolyn Simmons said her husband – who is 92 and still lives in Monongahela – was proud of the role he played in the litigation that ultimately led to Brown v. Board of Education.

“My husband is a strong believer in the United States constitutional democracy and in the role and responsibility of its courts to protect equal rights,” she said.

“Throughout his career, he worked to help to ensure equal access to justice for all.”

Johnson, a Pittsburgh resident who served on the Allegheny County bench from 1973 to Dec. 31, 2007, when he retired at age 80.

“In a sense, it not only broke down the barriers that had been placed in front of African Americans and minorities to attend what were then white schools, it solidified gains in transportation and public accommodations,” Johnson said.

Johnson said that before the Brown case, segregation was prevalent, and not just in the south.

“When I started to work in Washington, D.C., we called it Washington, J.C. – Jim Crow,” Johnson said of the racial segregation laws enacted from 1876 through 1965 in the United States.

“Trolleys, department stores were segregated. This was 1945.”

Looking back on Brown v. Board of Education, Johnson said the landmark ruling was “key to breaking down Jim Crow laws.”

Chris Buckley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-684-2642 or cbuckley@tribweb.com.

 

 
 


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