For 33 years, the only public tribute to one of Charleston's most famous jurists, the late U.S. District Judge J. Waties Waring, sat on a small podium inside City Hall.
What they said
"I just had a conversation with the president, and I don't normally talk about my conversations with the president, but he asked me why I was in Charleston, and I told him. ... He expressed great interest in hearing about the judge (Waring) and asked me to give him a copy of my remarks when I got back to Washington D.C. ... (Waring) is a great man and the recognition he gets today is well-deserved but too long in coming."
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder
"It is ironic that at the peak of his public vilification in South Carolina, Waring was regarded outside the South as a major national figure of stature. In December 1948, shortly after President Truman's stunning re-election, he met with Judge Waring in the Oval Office to discuss issues surrounding racial equality and the integration of the Army. The president later wrote Waring, saying, 'I wish we had more federal judges like you on the federal bench.' "
U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel
"Today, we formally, most publicly and proudly, bring a hero home. Cities, countries and their citizens need heroes - those whose deeds inspire and challenge us to respond to the better angels of our nature."
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley
"Judge Waring quickly gained a reputation as a stern, efficient and dignified judge, probably not a bad reputation to have as a judge."
Chief U.S. District Judge, South Carolina District, Terry Wooten
"The truth was that Judge Waring's vision about the direction of the law, and the lack of continued viability of the Plessy doctrine (of separate but equal) was unique among federal lower court judges."
Chief Judge, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit William Traxler
"J. Waties Waring's dissent is the writing that changed America. Look at how much has happened, and look at this audience and look at the diversity we have ringing this courthouse today so many years after only one race ringed the streets of this courthouse seeking justice. God Bless America."
S.C. Supreme Court Justice Jean Toal
"This painting (Jonathan Green's "A Breath of Freedom") will be reproduced, framed and distributed to every high school in South Carolina, and this will mark the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. ... As a result, students throughout the state will have a better understanding of a very important chapter in American history."
U.S. District Judge Margaret Seymour
"At this corner (of Charleston's Four Corners of Law), Judge Waring wrote his dissent that ultimately changed the other three corners forever."
Former Charleston Municipal Judge Arthur McFarland
"What Judge Waring did, and when he did it, and where he did it, goes down in history, in my opinion, as one of the most heroic acts that you could ask of any one person."
U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn
On Friday, diagonally across Broad and Meeting streets, an integrated crowd of several hundred people gathered to watch that change with a few tugs of a red cloth.
Those tugs unveiled a life-size bronze sculpture of Waring, whose famous 1951 dissent laid the groundwork for the U.S. Supreme Court to throw out the doctrine of separate but equal.
Waring's historical importance had long been overlooked in the city where he was born, raised and later served on the federal bench. That was because his rulings calling for equal teacher pay scales and the integration of political primaries and public schools had shaken the white establishment in Charleston and across the South.
U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel, one of a dozen speakers at Friday's two-hour ceremony, said when Waring died in 1968, he was considered a historic figure in his newfound home of New York but largely ignored in his native city and state.
"Today," he added, "by erecting this beautiful statue honoring Judge Waring and conducting this ceremony with local, state and national leaders of the bench and bar, we reclaim the legacy of Judge Waring."
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley noted Waring's new monument will link him forever to another famous Charlestonian, James Pettigru, whose grave is in St. Michael's cemetery directly across Meeting Street.
Like Waring, Pettigru also suffered the scorn of his neighbors by opposing the Civil War, but the city would eventually embrace them both. Pettigru's tombstone, penned by the Confederacy's poet laureate Henry Timrod, said Pettigru held his conscience higher than the praise of his people.
Riley said of Waring's statute, "From here, he will challenge us and all who follow to hold our conscience higher than praise."
S.C. Supreme Court Justice Jean Toal dramatically waved the gavel Waring was given when he ascended to the federal bench, then passed on to a state NAACP official upon his retirement. She noted it's now owned by his daughter, a black woman who now serves in the Daughters of the American Revolution - an organization that once excluded blacks.
She also introduced several children and grandchildren in the audience whose parents were among the 21 Clarendon County plaintiffs who suffered abuse, property loss and ostracism for pursuing the case that found its way to Waring's courtroom.
U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn also praised them and said while most in the audience are educated people, most of those plaintiffs were not. While education is important, Clyburn said what's equally important "is whether you are dedicated and committed to making this country live out its promises."
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who was born the same year that Waring issued his now famous dissent in a Clarendon County school desegregation case, said Waring's work led directly to Brown v. Board of Education and the end of legal segregation.
"Because of Judge Waring's powerful words and the legal foundation they helped to provide, my generation would be the very first to come of age in a post-Brown America," Holder said. "We were the first that would never know a world where 'separate but equal' was the accepted law of the land. ... He brought our nation closer to its highest ideals."
Holder said Waring's fight continues today as the nation seeks to attain justice for victims of hate crimes; to protect every eligible American's right to vote; and to extend legal protections to gay individuals and couples.
"I believe we could do no greater honor to his memory than to carry forward the efforts that defined his life," Holder said of Waring. "We must continue to compel successive generations to principled action. May each of us resolve right here, right now, to do just that."
Friday's dedication began three years ago, when Gergel and Toal organized a symposium on Waring's legacy on the 60th anniversary of his Briggs v. Elliott ruling.
The event drew packed houses and led to a move to honor Waring in a more permanent way.
No one Friday mentioned the irony that Waring's new statue stands near the statue of James Byrnes, a former U.S. Supreme Court jurist, U.S. senator, U.S. Secretary of State who also was South Carolina's governor in 1954 when the high court made its ruling. In 1954, Byrnes told people that the Supreme Court never would overturn Plessy and its separate but equal doctrine.
Those organizing the tribute also said they did not receive any flak from Charlestonians who don't think highly of Waring, whose divorce from his first wife stoked local ill will.
"We kept waiting for it," Gergel said of the potential blowback, "but the answer is no. I think Charleston is kind of proud of it."
Charleston Municipal Judge Arthur McFarland agreed.
"I see this as a liberating opportunity for old Charleston," he said. "The whole Jim Crow segregation was an event in American life that no one is proud of, and I think this whole idea of the statue and ceremony, while folks may not admit it, is becoming a liberating force for Charlestonians in particular."
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.
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