On September 8, 2004, in the Rotunda of the United States Capitol, the Honorable James E. Clyburn, United States House of Representatives (from South Carolina) welcomed those in attendance to the Congressional Gold Medal* Ceremony. I sat, listening attentively, with a special sense of pride. The Reverend Joseph A. DeLaine, one of the recipients, was a family member. The Congressional Gold Medal was being bestowed upon him posthumously for his pioneer civil rights activism. In the Clarendon County town of Summerton, he stood up to the power white elite and made a simple request for a school bus so that black children would no longer have to endure walking nine miles along frost-covered back roads to get to their primitive, segregated schools. His plea turned into a lawsuit against local officials and became one of five cases collectively known as Brown v Board of Education, which resulted in the Supreme Court decision that ended the “separate but equal” doctrine in America’s public schools.
As I watched his children receive the medal in his honor, it reminded me that family had always been important to Rev. DeLaine. In fact, it was because he valued family that I had come to know him. His father and my grandmother were brother and sister. At an early age, my grandmother passed and my grandfather and their five children moved from South Carolina to Florida. Consequently, Rev. DeLaine did not grow up with his first cousins. But that did not stop him from wanting to know them. Over fifty years later, my mother received a letter from him introducing himself as her first cousin and explaining their family lineage. He and his wife made a special trip to Daytona Beach to reconnect with her. I remember how excited my mother was that he had never given up on finding her, after all she had been five years of age when they were separated. As I sat in the Rotunda, I wondered how he had found us in an era of no internet or google. I smiled- no wonder it had taken fifty years. And then I thought, “he was always persistent and had resolve to obtain his goal.” Now the stories all made sense to me.
He had shared lots of stories and articles about his life and experiences with us. In fact, he had self-published in 1954 a booklet that he had written about “The Clarendon County School Segregation Case.”
I now wondered how he had produced this publication. Again, ahead of his time and recognizing the importance of personally documenting events. After seeing the pictures of his house burned to the ground and hearing about how the KKK had chased him and his family out of South Carolina and how they had survived in New York, it became apparent to me that my cousin was a bold and courageous leader who never gave up.
Preparing for the trip to DC, I thought I would look back at some of the pictures he had given to my mother. When I took his family photo out of her scrapbook, there written on the back were these words in his handwriting.
“After getting adjusted in N.Y. everybody thought it was an awful tragedy but, in addition to the education revolution set in motion, beginning in 1951 and the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision, May 17, 1954, it looks like the tragedy all worked for the best interest of all concerned. Bless the Lord O My Soul, And Forget Not All His Benefits.”From this handwritten message, I left knowing that his strength had come from his joy in knowing and trusting God as his source.
As we celebrate Black History Month, take a moment to reflect upon the life of a pioneer who has made an impact upon you. Now is our time. Let’s commit to paying forward so that others will benefit from our lives as well.
*The Congressional Gold Medal is the most distinguished award bestowed by the United States Congress. It is the nation’s top civilian award presented to those individuals that embody the best quality in America’s heritage. Before it can be awarded, legislation must be approved by the Congress and signed into law by the President. Congress first awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to George Washington in 1776.