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Waring bravely moved ahead of his time for racial justice

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At 2 p.m. on Friday, the Charleston legal community and regional and national leaders will honor J. Waties Waring, a federal judge. A statue of Waring, one of the most controversial and vilified Charlestonians who ever lived, will be unveiled at the Federal Courthouse at Meeting and Broad. It is an event a very long time in the making.

Julius Waties Waring, an eighth generation Charlestonian descended from a long line of Warings and Waties, was born into a family of moderate means on July 27, 1880. His father, Edward, served in the Confederate army. His mother was an orphan. His father worked for the Southern Railway Company and was county superintendent of education. Waring remembered his father as being "thoroughly saturated with the Confederate cause."

Waring lived most of his life and attended a small private school on the Charleston peninsula. His father could not afford to send him away to college so he went to the College of Charleston, where he excelled. He could not afford to go to law school so he read law on Broad Street, passed the bar examination, and became a lawyer. He married a well-connected Charleston woman, Annie Gammell. In 1915, they moved into 61 Meeting Street, a small house near the federal courthouse.

Waring became an assistant U.S. attorney and later in 1930, corporation counsel of the City of Charleston under Mayor Burnet R. Maybank. He founded a successful firm with D.A. Brockington. His views on race were entirely conventional for the time: "Most of the Negroes I knew were ex-slaves and you loved them, were good to them," he recalled. "We didn't give them any rights, but they never asked for any rights, and I didn't question it."

Waring became a federal judge in 1942, nominated by Franklin D. Roosevelt, through his political connections with Sens. "Cotton Ed" Smith, a virulent racist, and former Mayor Maybank. The Charleston Establishment was delighted with Waring's appointment.

Their happiness would not last long.

Beginning in 1944, Waring began rendering decisions in race-related cases that seemed out of character for a conservative Charleston lawyer. He ruled in favor of equal pay for the black teachers in the Duvall case. Thurgood Marshall, the lawyer for the NAACP, was so amazed by Waring's concern for the rights of black plaintiffs that he said the Duvall case "turned out to be the only case I ever tried with my mouth hanging open half the time."

Waring was no longer just another Southern segregationist. The rulings in favor of black plaintiffs kept coming. In 1947, he declared the all-white Democratic Party primary unconstitutional. "It is time," he wrote, "for South Carolina to rejoin the union." The Democratic Party primary, in those days the real election to public office, was now opened to black South Carolinians.

Waring met Elizabeth Avery Mills Hoffman over the bridge table. She was an unusually attractive woman from Michigan and Connecticut. His marriage to Annie fell apart. He divorced and married Hoffman. Many in Charleston were scandalized by their divorce.

Because of Waring's rulings and the liberal, outspoken views and, at times, harsh criticisms of the South's racial customs, racism and segregation by the judge and his wife, Waring was vilified through the South and in his home state. "We do not live in darkest Africa," Waring declared, "We live in darkest South Carolina."

In April 1950, Colliers magazine called Waring "the lonesomest man in town." There were threats against the Warings' lives; a cross was burned near their home and their windows broken.

In 1950, Judge Waring took an active interest in Briggs v. Elliott, a case from Clarendon County in which black parents originally brought a suit to force the school district to provide equal schools to black children under the "separate but equal" doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson.

Waring urged Marshall, lead counsel for the NAACP, to confront segregation head on. "Bring me a frontal attack on segregation," Waring is alleged to have told Marshall. "I don't want another separate but equal case."

Waring could see the future. He knew "separate but equal" was a dying legal doctrine. His blistering dissent from the decision of the three-judge federal court which decided Briggs vigorously attacked segregation. "Segregation in education can never produce equality ... segregation is per the inequality," he wrote.

The Briggs case was one of four cases consolidated under Brown v. Board of Education and was actually the central case. Brown should have been called Briggs. Marshall argued the Briggs case before the Supreme Court.Waring's dissent in Briggs was the first pronouncement by a federal judge in the 20th century that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. Because Waring himself was so controversial his dissent was not cited by the Supreme Court, but the words of Brown, "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal," echo Waring's dissent.

Waring retired from the bench after the Briggs case and moved to New York with his wife. On the night of the Brown decision, Walter White, the president of the NAACP, and other civil rights leaders in New York headed not for the NAACP headquarters, but for Judge Waring's apartment on Fifth Avenue. The Warings traveled to Charleston, where he received the thanks of and a plaque from Charleston's black community. Septima Clark, the civil rights leader, entertained the Warings at her home.

Waring remained estranged from his family. When he died in 1968 only 12 whites but more than 200 blacks attended his funeral at Magnolia Cemetery. When white Charleston ignored her father's funeral, Waring's daughter Anne said, "Why is it considered desirable to respect a man in death when respect was withheld during his lifetime? My own feeling is that white Charleston had the insight to know that Judge Waring would have rejected such a belated homage."

The Charleston Evening Post admitted that Waring "as a federal judge, had unusual perception into the future." A magnolia sapling planted at Waring's grave was uprooted by some unforgiving critic.

In April 1982, Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. accepted a bronze sculpture from the national NAACP honoring Judge Waring for his "passionate ... pursuit of justice." It stands in City Council chamber overlooking the federal courthouse.

As Judge Richard M. Gergel wrote in The National Law Journal, "It is fitting now - 60 years after the Briggs trial and Waring's remarkable dissent - to note the vital role an independent judiciary played in bringing about an end to government-mandated racial segregation in America. It is also important to remember the ability of one man, willing to sacrifice his good name and comfort for a higher principle, to help to change the course of American history."

On Friday, as the statue of the judge is unveiled, we should all tip our collective hat to Waties Waring, the lonesomest man in Charleston, for his courage and passion for justice.

Robert N. Rosen is a Charleston lawyer, the author of "A Short History of Charleston" and a member of the Waring Statue Committee. Further reading: Richard Kluger, "Simple Justice" (1975); Tinsley E. Yarbrough, "A Passion for Justice" (1987).

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