Breath of Freedom

This painting, by nationally renowned artist Jonathan Green, marks an important moment in American history: the opening day of the Briggs v. Elliott trial on May 28, 1951, at the Charleston Federal Courthouse. The Briggs case, brought by twenty-one courageous citizens of Summerton, South Carolina, was the first legal challenge in modern history to public-school racial segregation.

The painting depicts the large crowd that gathered at dawn at the corner of Broad and Meeting streets, hoping to gain admission to the limited courtroom seating. Judge J. Waties Waring, a Charleston-based federal judge assigned to a three-judge panel to hear the case, described the crowd as citizens who had come on a “pilgrimage” seeking “freedom and liberty.” “To me, it’s awfully heartening,” he said, when people “suddenly sniff a little breath of freedom.”

The gathering in the painting looks remarkably like the actual crowd in Charleston, as seen in a photo that appeared in the June 6, 1951 issue of the Afro American newspaper. The article’s headline read, “This Is Not A Ball Game Crowd.” Mr. Green painted his remarkable work before ever seeing this photograph.

In painting this image, Mr. Green has sought to capture the dignity and character of those in attendance, many of whom descended from the highly sophisticated West African rice culture. Mr. Green was raised in Gardens Corner, South Carolina, where he developed a strong feeling for his cultural heritage. After completing military service, he attended the Art Institute of Chicago and earned a bachelor’s degree in 1982. Art critics and reviewers consider Jonathan Green one of the most important contemporary painters of the southern experience. His work, which has been exhibited in major venues nationally and internationally, reflects an intrinsic sense of history and place. He lives now in Charleston.