As Brown vs. Board turns 60, Monongahela man's role in litigation recalled
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 email@example.com.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Probation check leads to drug, cash seizure in Monessen
- Floodwater, snow, ice cause problems across Mon Valley
- Arnold: What stories do you keep telling yourself?
- N. Charleroi mom on probation charged again
- PennDOT boss tells lawmaker Donora-Webster span doomed
- Drug charges mount for Charleroi man after chase
- Belle Vernon Area High School Drama Club to stage ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’
- Leapin’ lizards! Charleroi high school to stage ‘Annie’
- Woman identified in fatal Washington crash
- Problem with gas line forces evacuations in California Borough
- Former Atlas building in downtown Charleroi up for sale