Editor’s note: This is the first of five excerpts from "In Darkest South Carolina," the new book from Post and Courier columnist Brian Hicks. The story of Charleston Judge J. Waties Waring and his plot that culminated in the Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, this excerpt opens with the 1950 attack on his home. "In Darkest South Carolina" is available in local book stores, The Post and Courier offices at 134 Columbus St. or from eveningpostbooks.com. Call 843-958-7367 for details.
The sound of gunfire echoed through the alleys south of Broad Street, hanging in the humid night air like Spanish moss from the live oaks.
It was a noise decidedly out of place in Charleston’s finest neighborhood, at least since the war had ended nearly a century earlier. While the rest of the city endured more crime than was typical for its size, the area South of Broad — as locals called it — was largely immune from such unpleasantness. In many ways, the 20th century ended at the business district. On the narrow streets of the peninsula’s tip, crowded with antebellum homes passed from one generation to the next, residents carried on as if it were still 1850.
Inside the relatively modest stucco house at 61 Meeting St., Waties Waring was startled by the sound but not overly surprised. He had always assumed it would come to this. There had been too many threats, too many promises of violence. In fact, President Truman had received word of a planned attack against Waring just three days earlier. The White House ignored the warning — there were simply too many to take them all seriously, even those from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
At first, Waring thought the noise was simply a car backfiring — he’d heard one outside just a moment before. He’d taken note of this because there was typically little traffic in the neighborhood past 9 p.m., and because it was impossible not to hear; his living room sat less than 20 feet from the street. He was still trying to determine whether the sound came from a tailpipe when he heard the crash.
Waring and his wife, Elizabeth, had been playing canasta in the living room. It was the newest fad in cards, ideally a game for two couples, but the Warings had little company these days. Their neighbors didn’t visit, few friends called on them and they had been blackballed from all of Charleston’s elite social clubs. On the street, most passersby ignored them — except, of course, the ones who hurled insults and epithets. The only people who spoke to the Warings regularly were anonymous callers who suggested in hushed tones that they leave town and never come back.
The threatening phone calls may have persuaded the Warings to stay in and play cards instead of walking up King Street to the Riviera Theater, where Humphrey Bogart’s newest film noir, In a Lonely Place, was playing on the 50-foot screen. The judge at least could appreciate the sentiment. Months earlier, Collier’s magazine had dispatched a reporter to chronicle his ostracism from Charleston’s complex social strata. That article had carried the headline, “The Lonesomest Man in Town.”
South Carolina had branded the Warings agitators, which was an impolite, euphemistic way of saying they were civil rights advocates. But unlike most crusaders, the Warings were in a position to promote their cause. They had become national figures, favorites of journalists around the country, their message covered breathlessly by national news outlets as far away as New York City and California. That made them dangerous. The birthplace of the Confederacy would not stand for such radical ideas; South Carolina’s political leaders promised they would never submit to integration. So the Warings had to go.
From the living room, the Warings could not see what was happening outside. The windows of the former carriage house were set high in the wall, affording them no view of the street. They simply heard a car slow down, then a sharp crack, followed in quick succession by two more. Before they could react, a brick crashed through the window above the sofa, sailed over a framed photograph of Elizabeth and hit the opposite wall. Shattered glass rained down on the room.
Waring, still spry at 70, dove to the floor and pulled Elizabeth down with him. He landed on top of her, trying to protect her. Lying in broken glass and playing cards, disoriented from the fall, he heard something slam into the front door. Then more rocks, or something, began to pelt the front of the house, and he worried what might come next. He glanced at the door that opened into the house’s other front room. That door led to the patio, and the garden gate wasn’t locked. If the attackers came in from the back yard, he knew they were dead.
As the bombardment continued, the couple crawled through the debris and into the dining room. There, Waring pulled the telephone off its stand and made a call to report what was happening.
The home of a federal judge was under attack.
The first officers to arrive at 61 Meeting St. questioned their account of the attack and chief detective Herman Berkman was openly dismissive. He doubted they’d actually heard gunfire, even ventured to guess it was just a prank. He picked up one of the rocks on the sidewalk and said, “See, it’s really nothing but a brick. There’s nothing to it.”
They imagined Berkman smiled as he said it.
The judge had long suspected that the Charleston police were sympathetic to such harassment, if not complicit in covering up the crimes. Six months earlier, someone had burned a cross outside his house — the letters “KKK” carved into the wood. Berkman had called that a teenager’s prank as well. He’d even told newspapers there was no proof of Klan involvement. Now, he wanted to downplay an all-out assault.
Something had happened this time, however, and the police could not deny it. They found rocks on the sidewalk and scattered throughout the living room, although the only serious damage was a broken window and a ripped screen door. The officers saw no bullet holes. When Berkman suggested this was simply vandalism, Elizabeth ordered him out of the house.
For months, Waring had been studying a series of recent court cases that challenged Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court decision that provided the basis for “separate but equal” laws. He considered Plessy ludicrous, a contradiction of the United States Constitution, but one that had allowed South Carolina and other states to justify decades of segregation and Jim Crow laws. There could be no change in the country, he knew, unless Plessy was overturned.
Reversing that single court decision could usher in a true era of civil rights, Waring realized; all he needed was the right case and a brave lawyer. As it happened, he had both. Thurgood Marshall had filed a lawsuit against rural Clarendon County for not providing equitable schools to black children, and the state had foolishly risen to the district’s defense. The case had merit, but Waring decided it didn’t go far enough. He secretly urged Marshall to recast the lawsuit, to think bigger. Asking for equal, yet separate, schools only perpetuated segregation. The goal, Waring argued, was to abolish the entire system.
“Raise the issue for all time as to whether a state can segregate by race in its schools.”
Marshall had listened politely, but feared it was a waste of time. Plessy had stood for more than half a century, and the courts had ruled against so many NAACP lawsuits that the group had considered quietly giving up. But Waring had a plan — one he would not fully share with Marshall or anyone else. The judge had discovered a way to force the U.S. Supreme Court to confront the unconstitutional notion of “separate but equal” once and for all. Waring knew his plan would work, even if he had to bend the rules of judicial ethics.
So, the racists could threaten him and South Carolina politicians could castigate him, but to stop him they’d have to kill him. Waring would not leave Charleston, or the bench, until he was finished. He had made up his mind, and he was determined.
He was going to end segregation in America.