Overhearing history: Author of 'Emancipation Procrastination' to talk about integration and slow-to-act South

eshaw@islandpacket.comMarch 22, 2014 

  • IF YOU GO


    WHAT: Meet author William Carson of "The Emancipation Procrastination"

    WHEN: 2 p.m. March 23

    WHERE: Heritage Library, 852 William Hilton Parkway, Hilton Head Island

    COST: Free

    DETAILS: Call 843-686-6560 to register. Light refreshments will be served.

Joseph Carson always took important phone calls in the den -- and as the chairman of the Summerton school district in the 1950s, he got many.

NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall was on the line to discuss the need for school integration. Carson would surely help implement it, wouldn't he?

Governor Strom Thurmond rang to tear the subject apart. Carson would surely help oppose it, wouldn't he?

All the while, Carson's son William overheard these conversations, but it wasn't until later in life that he fully realized that history was being made in his living room.

Now retired and living on Hilton Head Island, William Carson has written a book based on his experiences growing up in Summerton amid such a complex time in American history. "The Emancipation Procrastination" follows the upheaval of the segregated U.S. school system through the lives of Mose and Lillybell, aliases for real people who lived on Joseph Carson's cotton farm.

It was Summerton, a small town two hours north of Hilton Head, that spawned the Supreme Court case Briggs v. Elliott. The case became part of Brown v. Board of Education and famously overturned racial segregation in U.S. public schools.

Carson will discuss his book at 2 p.m. March 23 at the Heritage Library on Hilton Head.

In the book, Mose is a sharecropper toiling in the cotton fields when he meets and marries Lillybell, an educated Gullah girl from Beaufort. They lived in a time when "separate but equal" was the norm. White and black children could play together, but could not attend school together. White children had buses to take them to schools with heat and plumbing. Black children did not.

Summerton resident Harry Briggs decided his children deserved a bus, too. After going to the school board and being turned away, he went to the NAACP, which offered help if he could get 20 people to sign a petition. He did, and lost everything because of it.

Blacks who had signed the petition were ousted from their jobs. Whites who had signed the petition were boycotted by other whites. A white citizens' council was formed for the sole purpose of applying economic pressure to any outspoken sympathizers.

"My father would not gin cotton for those that had signed the petition," Carson said. "At the time, I felt the same as everybody else. How do I feel about it now? It was crazy as hell. But that's the way the South was."

The South was about to change, though. The Supreme Court demanded it. In the 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, the court declared states must integrate their schools "with all deliberate speed," but "they didn't know how slowly things could move in this part of the South," Carson wrote.

It would be 10 years before anything was done, and even then the idea still baffled Southerners.

"People in Summerton had no idea what to do," Carson said. "To correct something that had gone on for 300 years ... you couldn't do it."

Trying to right a wrong so rapidly was ultimately detrimental to the educational and social system between blacks and whites, Carson said. The two groups had lived together peacefully before the petition, but after it, they became suspicious of each other. It caused Mose and Lillybell to leave the South for better educational opportunities in Philadelphia.

And it made Briggs' courage even more impressive, Carson said. "I think he was braver than Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, because he was by himself and he knew he was going to lose everything."

What Briggs started in Summerton rippled through the rest of the country. What Carson overheard in the den was argued over in the Supreme Court. What does he hope readers take away from the book?

"That all men are created equal."

Follow reporter Erin Shaw at twitter.com/IPBG_ErinShaw.

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