The many accolades recently bestowed on Judge J. Waties Waring are richly deserved. There is not one other leader in Charleston or South Carolina history who so ardently and publicly defied the prevailing dedication of his people to segregation and racial discrimination. If anything, the statue dedicated in his honor should stand even taller.
Still, Waring's judicial reputation for support of civil rights is not without at least one blemish. On the same July day in 1947 that he rejected the South Carolina Democratic Party's attempt to maintain all-white primary elections, Waring permitted the State of South Carolina to expand segregation in higher education.
Charleston resident John Wrighten applied for admission to the University of South Carolina Law School in 1947. Wrighten was an Army-Air Force veteran. He also happened to be black and a graduate of Avery Institute.
With the support of the NAACP and its chief legal counsel, Thurgood Marshall, Wrighten sued the University of South Carolina Board of Trustees for admission to the USC law school after he had been rejected solely because of his color. The case was heard in Judge Waring's Columbia courtroom June 5-6, 1947. One of the observers in the courtroom was a young man from Columbia named Matthew J. Perry. Marshall's case did not hinge directly on segregation because South Carolina did not provide separate law schools for black and white Carolinians.
Miller F. Whittaker, the president of the South Carolina State, the state's only public black college, testified that South Carolina afforded its black citizens no opportunity in the state to gain a legal education. State officials, in the meantime, pledged that they would finance and erect a new and separate law school for Negroes in Orangeburg at South Carolina State, thereby avoiding the possibility that black people would sully the halls of the University's Law School.
An incredulous Marshall pointedly asked Whittaker if a law school could be established at S.C. State in less than two months "that would be the full and complete equal of the law school at the University of South Carolina?" Whittaker replied, "No, I don't think so."
But instead of ordering Wrighten's admission to the USC law school, Waring ruled - based on a precedent established in a Missouri case in 1938 - that the State of South Carolina could establish a separate law school for Negroes as long as it was "equipped, fitted, and ready for the giving of instruction on a complete parity with the University Law School."
If South Carolina failed to establish the black law school, then Wrighten would have to be admitted to the USC Law School or legal education in South Carolina would be abolished for both races.
In a matter of weeks a new law school, with a dean, three faculty members (including the state's first African American woman attorney), and a small law library were in operation on the S. C. State campus. But Marshall was bitterly disappointed at the creation of the new "separate but equal" law school, characterizing it as a "Jim Crow dump in South Carolina." He advised John Wrighten not to enroll. But nine students did enroll that fall. In the ensuing two decades of its existence, the S.C. State Law School graduated 50 men and one woman, but it hardly prospered. With declining enrollments and inadequate funding, it closed in 1966. It was not fully accredited by the American Bar Association, primarily because of low faculty salaries. The law school never came close to achieving the "complete parity" with the university's law school that Waring had mandated in his decision.
And yet that law school so disparaged by Thurgood Marshall produced a cadre of black attorneys who proceeded to use their knowledge of the law to attack segregation in South Carolina. At least 12 of the 27 attorneys who graduated from the S. C. State Law School and practiced in South Carolina were involved in civil rights litigation. Matthew J. Perry handled at least 93 civil rights cases and Ernest Finney took on no less than twenty.
Both men went on to become renowned jurists. Perry served as a federal judge from 1979 until his death in 2011. The federal courthouse in Columbia was named in his honor in 2005. Ernest Finney served as S.C. chief justice from 1994-2000. John Wrighten, despite Marshall's advice, graduated from that law school in 1952 and took part in at least four civil rights cases.
It is therefore a superb irony that the segregated law school that Judge Waring was instrumental in creating graduated lawyers who were largely responsible for ending segregation in South Carolina. It's a legacy worth remembering.
William C. Hine taught history at S.C. State University for many years. His history of the university is scheduled to be published by the University of South Carolina Press.