That old Charleston drawl was unmistakable.
“Brian, get down here,” the voice on the line said. “We’ve got work to do.”
He called now and then, usually to talk about a column or offer his vast insight on politics. When Fritz Hollings spoke, you listened.
And when he summoned you, you went.
This was March 2015, and Hollings wanted to rename Charleston’s federal courthouse in honor of Judge J. Waties Waring — the man who opened the state Democratic primary to African-Americans and orchestrated the U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education.
Hollings knew what he was doing. Earlier, he’d encouraged me to take another shot at writing Waring’s biography, so the hook was set.
Waring was a hero to Hollings, myself and the handful of people who remembered him. But it was the senator who would ensure he was never again lost to history.
He’d had the idea since at least 2011. But when Hollings first mentioned it to U.S. District Judges Richard Gergel and Mike Duffy, they politely ignored him.
Gergel and Duffy idolize Waring, but they feared changing the name of the Hollings Judicial Center would look like a slight to Fritz. Besides, as Gergel pointed out, judges don’t name courthouses.
Hollings quickly recognized their reluctance and realized he’d have to find another way. So he turned to tactics he knew well: politics and the press.
He explained that if a column in The Post and Courier floated the idea of renaming the courthouse for Waring, it would be impossible to ignore.
It was not only a great column idea, it was touching — the greatest gesture of statesmanship that I’ve seen in 30 years of journalism.
Hollings admired what the judge had done because, as a former governor and senator, he was one of the few people who really understood how difficult it had been. He was also old enough that he’d appeared in Waring’s courtroom and, unlike most Charlestonians in those days, actually liked him.
“He was damned nice to me.”
Hollings confided that he’d never wanted his name on the courthouse anyway. Strom Thurmond had it named after him … because Thurmond was naming a lot of stuff after himself, and needed to balance the scales a bit.
But Hollings said Waring’s name was much more appropriate for Charleston’s federal courthouse.
“I just got the money for the building,” Hollings said. “He made history in it.”
So this is what we’re going to do, he said.
“You call Lindsey, and I’ll call Lindsey.”
Which seemed like egregious overkill. Why did I need to call Lindsey Graham? There was no question the senator would do just about anything for Fritz.
But when Hollings gives an order, you follow it.
By then, Graham had already heard the news and was appropriately impressed.
“Not many people in my business would do this,” Graham said in a monumental moment of understatement.
The column ran in The Post and Courier on a Sunday, and that morning Gergel got an early call from Judge Duffy.
“This just proves Fritz is a better politician than you or I,” he said.
It took only a few months. Several members of South Carolina’s congressional delegation called to confirm the story — “A Charleston judge really did this?” one of them asked — but Jim Clyburn already knew. The congressman had written a book on Briggs v. Elliott, the case Waring used to prompt Brown v. Board.
Clyburn and Graham had the courthouse renamed in six months, an actual act of Congress.
The Government Services Administration said no one had ever asked to have his name removed from a federal building in favor of someone else’s. It was historic.
“That was his last great public gesture,” Gergel says. “It was gracious and humble. Fritz wasn’t known for his humility, but there it was on display. He felt unworthy compared to Waring, and did something no other person would have done — he acted against his own self-interest.”
That was Hollings. Last month, in my final visit with the senator, he was still talking about the importance of Brown v. Board, the impetus for his grand gesture to Charleston — and American — history. And it was still inspiring.
Ernest F. Hollings was the last of a breed, a true man of honor.
And when he passes, you honor him.
Reach Brian Hicks at firstname.lastname@example.org.