Almost 60 years after the Brown v. Board of Education school integration decision, a statue will be erected to honor the Charleston judge who steered the nation toward the landmark ruling.
It’s long overdue. Quite frankly, we should be embarrassed that it’s taken this long. U.S. District Judge Waties Waring’s courage and conviction in law helped to transform a segregated America into an integrated land of opportunity.
At 2 p.m. April 11 in the garden at the Hollings Judicial Center in Charleston, judges and citizens from around the state and nation will honor Waring, the unlikely Southern jurist who became the social outcast who left town for challenging segregation.
Waring was an architect of the legal path that led to the Brown v. Board decision handed down on May 17, 1954, through want has been called “the dissent that changed America.” Waring was the first federal judge directly to challenge the 1896 “separate but equal” doctrine that propped up segregation as an everyday practice in the South. He wrote June 21, 1951 in Briggs v. Elliott:
“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.”
Three years later, the U.S. Supreme Court, in considering appeals of the Briggs case and four other segregation cases, delivered a unanimous verdict that “separate but equal” public schools for blacks and whites were unconstitutional.
What’s particularly interesting about Waring’s story is how his perspective broadened to challenge the segregated society in which he was raised and prospered until he became a federal judge at age 61 in 1942. Born in 1880, he had a solid but comparatively undistinguished legal career as an assistant U.S. attorney starting in 1914, followed by private practice in the 1920s. He supported the cultural order, became city attorney in 1931 and kept close ties with leading state politicians. When he was appointed to the bench, few thought he’d ever rock the boat.
But as writer Richard Kluger described in “Simple Justice,” Waring’s conversion into a moderate jurist began gradually, first with a case involving a black 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 came a case in which 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.
“He’s not out there creating new law,” Gergel said. “What is remarkable is there is no other [Southern] district judge enforcing the rulings of the appellate court.”
Then Waring divorced his wife of 32 years and quickly married an outspoken, twice-divorced Northerner, a union which led Charleston bluebloods to ostracize them.
But Waring’s ruling to end the all-white Democratic primary in 1948 endeared him to few. “It is time for South Carolina to rejoin the Union,” he wrote in one opinion. In October 1950, a cross was burned in his yard on Meeting Street. Three gunshots rang out one night. A concrete lump crashed through a window. The Warings had to get federal protection. He retired soon after the Briggs case and moved to New York, spurned by Charleston.
Gergel says Waring’s story inspires because he had an easy way out by just ruling to keep the status quo.
“It was always kicked upstairs,” Gergel said. “Judge Waring breaks the precedent because he obeys the law. He is just enforcing law.”
And now, finally, the time has come to honor him.
“This is a great story for Charleston,” Gergel said. “This is a great story for South Carolina and a great story for America. It’s a vindication of the rights of the American Constitution.”