S.C. Finally Honoring a Civil Rights Hero

APRIL 8, 2014 -- It has taken more than 60 years for people in the city where the Civil War started to figure out it was home to an authentic civil rights hero.

On Friday, April 11, Charleston city fathers will unveil a statue commemorating the bold prescience of J. Waties (pronounced "wait-eez") Waring, a federal district judge who was the first in the South to write that government-mandated racial segregation was unconstitutional. The reward for his courage? The eighth-generation Charlestonian became a pariah, run out of town after he retired following his strong dissent that directly influenced the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board school desegregation decision.

A Charleston blueblood born in 1880, Waring had a solid but comparatively undistinguished legal career, first as an assistant U.S. attorney in South Carolina, followed by private practice that included a stint as city attorney. He was close to leading politicians. When confirmed by the U.S. Senate for the bench at age 61 in 1942, few dreamed he would rock the boat that separated black from white.

But as writer Richard Kluger describes in "Simple Justice," Waring's conversion into a moderate began gradually, first with a case involving a black South Carolina man detained against his will to work on a white farm. Instead of just telling the farmer to stop, Waring shocked many by sending him to jail.

Soon, Waring ended segregated seating in his courtroom. He appointed a black bailiff, virtually unheard of in the nation. Then he ordered the state to desegregate its law school or create an equal facility for blacks. At the time, as current U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel explains, Waring was essentially enforcing federal law and court precedents. He required equal treatment, but didn't challenge the standard of "separate" outlined in 1896 in Plessy v. Ferguson.

"What is remarkable is there is no other [Southern] district judge enforcing the rulings of the appellate court," Gergel said.

Then Waring divorced his wife of 32 years and quickly married an outspoken, twice-divorced Northerner, a union that led Charleston society to ostracize them. But then came Waring's 1948 ruling to end the all-white Democratic primary.

"It is time for South Carolina to rejoin the Union," he wrote in the opinion that endeared him to few.

In October 1950, somebody burned a cross in his Meeting Street yard. Three gunshots rang out another night. A concrete lump crashed through a window. The Warings got federal protection.

In January 1951, journalist Carl T. Rowan met with the Warings. Afterwards, he wrote, "To me, Charleston represents the desert of democracy. Sunday I drank sweet water from a fountain of hope that has sprung up, that has emerged from this land I thought so barren of morality, so heedless to the cry of a suffering humanity. You are that fountain."

That May came Briggs v. Elliott, a case from rural Clarendon County that started when black parents wanted money from the local school board to pay for gas so a broken-down school bus could pick up their children to attend a broken-down school. As the case matured into a civil rights case with the legendary Thurgood Marshall as the attorney for the NAACP, a three-judge panel heard chilling testimony about school conditions that certainly were separate, but anything but equal.

On June 21, 1951, Waring became the first federal judge since 1896 to challenge the "separate but equal" doctrine that propped up segregation as an everyday practice in the South. He wrote:

Segregation in education can never produce equality and that it is an evil that must be eradicated. ... I am of the opinion that all of the legal guideposts, expert testimony, common sense and reason point unerringly to the conclusion that the system of segregation in education adopted and practiced in the State of South Carolina must go and must go now. Segregation is per se inequality.

He retired soon after the Briggs case and, spurned by Charleston, moved to New York City for a life of exile. He counted the head of the NAACP, Walter White, and writer Alan Paton as friends. He returned to Charleston in a coffin in 1968 for a graveside ceremony attended by few whites but by more than 200 blacks. They understood how Waring helped to change America.

Thanks to visionaries like Waties Waring, legal segregation no longer exists in America. But divides still separate Southerners among themselves and the rest of the nation. The lead headline in the April 1 edition of The (Charleston) Post and Courier was no joke: "Study finds many S.C. children lagging."

The story outlined how white, black and Hispanic children in the Palmetto State scored below the national average on a dozen indicators in a new study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. But that's not surprising in a state in which several counties have poverty rates of more than 25 percent. It's not surprising in a region that's home to eight of the 10 states that have the nation's highest poverty rates, seven of the nation's lowest high school graduation rates and dramatically higher rates of diabetes, obesity, hypertension and infant mortality.

The South has come a long way since Waties Waring's dissent that steered the Briggs case "the hard way," as Chief Justice Earl Warren later said, to the Supreme Court's eventual unanimous ruling in the Brown decision. But today's South still has a long way to go.

Andy Brack is president and chairman of the Center for a Better South and operates its Southern Crescent projectto reduce rural poverty and increase economic opportunities.