Sunday, March 25, 2012

Supporters propose a memorial for Judge J. Waties Waring

Here's wonderful opportunity to do a good thing for our state, our children and ourselves. I hope our state's educators will support this wholeheartedly and actively.

I've written several times to praise Judge J. Waties Waring of Charleston, a man whose leadership did much to change -- against the wishes of Charleston society -- the course of South Carolina's and America's history.

In this week's edition of Statehouse Report, editor Andy Brack brings the great news that Waring may finally be memorialized with a monument on the federal courthouse grounds in the Holy City.

Notice, however, that the monument would stand on federal courthouse land, not state property. Alas, while we continue to honor the memories of murderous governors and racist senators on our State House grounds, there is not yet room for a good man of egalitarian principle. Perhaps in another century.

A generation of South Carolinians -- maybe two -- have grown up without knowing much about a home-grown civil rights hero with a national reputation. It’s high time they did.

Meet U.S. District Judge J. Waties Waring (1880-1968), a native son who called for the crippling shackles of segregation to be stripped from South Carolina at a time when blacks and whites had to drink from different water fountains.

To say that Judge Waring, an eighth-generation Charlestonian, was unpopular among the white elite in the late 1940s through the day he retired in 1952 is an whopping understatement. And at a time when South Carolina had two school systems perpetuated by the Jim Crow deceit of “separate but equal,” what got them most was that one of their own jumped ship to do what was right by treating blacks as Americans, not inferiors.

Waring started breaking from traditional rulings a couple of years after he became a federal judge in 1942. He first gained mainstream attention in 1947 and the considerable ire of state leaders when he ordered the S.C. Democratic Party, the only real political party at the time, to stop its white-only primary and let black South Carolinians cast ballots in it. That decision, along with another the following year, offered a realistic opportunity for South Carolina’s blacks to vote. Thousands did in August 1948.

But the case that put Waring in the history books involved segregated schools in Summerton where 46 black minors and 22 adults brought a case in 1947 seeking bus transportation. After the NAACP took the case two years later, it made its way to a three-judge federal court panel that included Waring.

In a blistering 21-page dissent that supported the Clarendon County plaintiffs in Briggs v. Elliott, Waring castigated so-called “separate but equal” schools prevalent throughout the South for generations. The Constitution, he explained, clearly outlined how equal treatment under the law -- not just for white citizens -- was a fundamental right and that separate was not equal. He wrote in June 1951:

"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 adopted and practiced in the State of South Carolina must go and must go now. Segregation is per se inequality."

Waring's opinion didn't prevail, but it did send more shockwaves throughout white South Carolina. By December 1952, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on whether school segregation was a constitutional violation. It combined five similar cases in that hearing, including an appeal of the Briggs decision by the NAACP and its lawyer, Thurgood Marshall. The resulting ruling in the combined case of Brown v. Board of Education unanimously outlawed school segregation, just as Waring concluded in his 1951 dissent.

“He made history in that decision,” observed retired U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings, reportedly the last living lawyer who attended the oral arguments in the Washington courtroom in 1952. Last year in an article in the National Law Review, U.S. District Judge Richard M. Gergel of Charleston and Hofstra law professor Leon Friedman observed that Waring’s dissent was the first since the “separate but equal ruling” in which “a federal judge concluded that racial segregation was incompatible with the American Constitution.”

Sixty years have passed since Waring resigned his Charleston judgeship at age 71 to move to New York, never to return to his home state while alive.

Today, a move is afoot among leading attorneys of the state to memorialize Waring with a statue on the grounds of the federal courthouse in Charleston where the judge held court and, coincidentally, is just a block from where he lived. They’re talking with sculptors and starting to raise money to install the statue, perhaps as early as next year.

Good. It’s about time. We need more Waties Warings today. Regardless of your political persuasion, the judge had the courage to protect democracy and freedom in the midst of scorn, ostracism, closed-mindedness and duplicity. Most of our current leaders could learn a thing or two from Waring’s example.

Brack directs, as I do, readers to a new website that has been established to draw attention to Waring's life and memory, and to the effort to memorialize him.

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