The chair in the center of the stage is not a prop. It is ground zero for the drama where the many characters who occupy it experience triumph and sometimes defeat in a struggle for human rights that doesn’t always seem to bend upward.
This is the bittersweet story of “The Seat of Justice,” which Charleston Stage is bringing back to the Dock Street Theatre for a run that begins on Feb. 19 and continues through March 6. (Ticket information is here.)
“The Seat of Justice” which was written and is directed by Julian Wiles, founder of Charleston Stage, recounts the long, many-sided fight by the black community of Clarendon County, in South Carolina’s cotton belt, to desegregate their children’s disgracefully inadequate public schools. It began in 1947, when black families in the town of Summerton in Clarendon, emboldened by one of their pastors, spoke out against “separate but equal schools” that could mean an eight-mile walk for their children. The pastor went to the local school board and asked for improvements. The school board said no.
In 1950, the parents, guided by legal counsel which included the NAACP’s Thurgood Marshall, took their case to federal court. Thus began Briggs v. Elliot, which was first heard in Charleston District Court, where a majority of judges decreed that schools could be segregated by race, but had to be more equally financed. The one dissenting judge, Waties Waring, said flatly: “Segregation is per se inequality.”
Waring’s dissent resonated all the way to Washington and the U.S. Supreme Court, where, four years later, all nine justices came to the same judgment and outlawed school segregation as a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The case of the historic decision bears the name Brown v. Board of Education, after the parties fighting and defending segregation in the school system of Topeka, Kans. But the case before the justices was a consolidation involving four cases of school segregation, including Briggs and Elliot. The black community of Clarendon was vindicated.
“The Seat of Justice” follows this seven-year trail from Clarendon to Charleston to Washington and finally back to Clarendon. But a story that is sprawling in time and geography is, in Wiles' script, direction and staging, brought to a tight, dramatic focus on that chair and the many characters in the play who occupy it.
“The key point I wanted to make is that it wasn’t one person, one judge, one lawyer who changed the course of history, it was many people from many walks of life who took their seat in ‘the Seat of Justice’ and literally changed the world,” Wiles told me. “This new production focusing even more and better utilizes a specific chair that represents the seat of justice throughout the play.”
Wiles is bringing his drama back to Dock Street after it premiered there in 2004 as part of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision.
For all the history that Brown v. Board of Education made in 1954, it did not give the black children of Summerton seats in integrated schools until 1966 after years of “massive resistance” by the state, sham “equalization” schemes for black schools and white-supremacist violence that burned down the home of the black pastor who led the parents in their struggle and drove him out of Summerton.
The ultimate integration of Clarendon's schools didn't bring school equality to black children. White parents put their children in new private schools. By 2,000, Clarendon's public schools were 95 percent black.