April 11, 2014 was a historic day in Charleston, South Carolina. A monument was unveiled for a man whose brave actions involving civil rights 67 years ago caused him to be ostracized and run out of his home state of South Carolina.
Historically in Charleston, it has been a special kind of hell for black people. As slaves, blacks were publicly whipped, branded and hanged. Later, they were discriminated against on so many levels one couldn’t count them. Things are still far from truly equal.
In the late 1940s, before the rest of the nation started to fight for civil rights, this man — a federal judge who was the son of a Confederate soldier and presided in the city where the Civil War began — took some extraordinarily brave actions on the bench.
U.S. District Judge Waites Waring ruled in 1947 that South Carolina’s all-white Democratic primary was unconstitutional, and later, well before the U.S. Supreme Court got around to agreeing with him, that racial segregation in the schools was inherently unequal.
Waring's controversial opinions made him a pariah in the segregated South. A cross was burned in his yard, bricks were thrown through his windows and he received numerous death threats.
Congressman L. Mendel Rivers of Charleston called Judge Waring “a monster” on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. The judge was shunned by his own relatives, forced to resign from his clubs and even from his own church, and finally from the federal bench. He and his wife fled to New York City for their personal safety.
In South Carolina, punishment for such “sins” is silence. The white people of Charleston made Judge Waring disappear. Largely forgotten in Charleston for more than five decades, Waring is finally being remembered today for the role he played in school desegregation.
A statue of Waring will be dedicated today at the federal courthouse where he heard his cases. Also, a historical marker about the Clarendon County, South Carolina case he presided over was recently placed outside the courthouse.
Waring's 1951 dissent in the Clarendon case was largely followed by the U.S. Supreme Court in its landmark Brown vs. Board of Education outlawing segregated public schools. The Brown ruling came after the appeal of the South Carolina case was combined with similar cases from Kansas, Delaware and the District of Columbia.
Waring was the first judge since the U.S. Supreme Court 1896’s decision in Plessey vs. Ferguson establishing separate but equal in race relations as the law of the land to write an opinion challenging the doctrine.
Waring wrote that beyond unequal facilities "segregation in education can never produce equality" and called it "an evil that must be eradicated." The Clarendon County case, he wrote, demanded a "strike at the cause of the infection and not merely at the symptoms of the disease."
When Waring and two other federal judges heard the Clarendon case in Charleston in 1951 — a case in which future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall argued for the plaintiffs — hundreds of blacks lined up outside the courthouse hoping to get seats, although there wasn't room for all.
"They had come there on pilgrimage," Waring recalled in an interview at Columbia University some years later. "It's awfully heartening when you get poor, illiterate, ignorant people to suddenly sniff a little breath of freedom."
After Judge Waring arrived in New York City, he befriended the late CBS journalist Charles Kuralt. The judge was asked by Kuralt how he had come so far, considering his Southern background, to make such a brave ruling.
“Being a judge,” Waring told Kuralt, “I gradually became judicious.”
Kuralt, in his book “Charles Kuralt’s America,” said the next time Waring returned to Charleston was to be buried. Kuralt was at the funeral as a reporter on January 17, 1969.
“I remember no more than six or eight white faces in the crowd; white Charlestonians, including most members of his family, stayed home that day to show their contempt for him. Hundreds of black people stood there shoulder to shoulder to show their respect.”
Kuralt called Waring in his book “an unsung American hero.” And that he was.
South Carolina has changed in many ways since Judge Waring made his famous rulings. But it is far too soon to say that racism there is behind us. It has just taken on a different form in a harsh political establishment that is virtually all far rightwing Republicans.
But at least the silence has ended and Judge Waring got a public appreciation for his bravery and good works. In a political environment like the one in South Carolina, that’s a miracle in itself.
With thanks to the Associated Press and Charles Kuralt!