April 11, 2014 was a very important day in the history of South Carolina. Few people noticed that anything much happened — but I would argue that this was the day we as a state did two very important things.
First, we recognized a hero. And second, we showed that there is a new South Carolina that is — and for some time has been — struggling to be born.
First the hero. The South Carolina of the 1940s and 50s was a brutally racist and divided society. Anyone who would deny this is either ignorant of our history or simply unwilling to acknowledge reality.
In most parts of our state the vast majority of black folks were daily suffering the indignities of a society that was only a few steps removed from slavery. Yes there were schools for blacks, but under the “separate but equal” laws of the land, they were hardly worthy of the name school. And when it came to voting, for black folk it was essentially impossible in most places in our state.
Then a native son of Charleston put things in motion that were to change all of this. The story of Judge Julius Waites Waring is well documented if not well known. In short, Waring broke the back of legal segregation with several rulings that changed the course of history, not only in South Carolina but nationally.
In 1944 he ruled that black teachers should be paid the same as white teachers and in 1947, he declared that the all-white Democratic Party could not exclude blacks. These rulings sent shock waves through South Carolina and caused Waring to be ostracized by white society … and much worse.
In 1950, he wrote an opinion that sent shock waves not just throughout South Carolina, but throughout the country. In a dissenting opinion in the Briggs vs. Elliot case of Clarendon County, Waring made the first pronouncement by a federal judge in the 20th Century that said segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.
The Briggs case was later combined with four other cases and became Brown vs. Board of Education, which resulted in the landmark May 17, 1954 decision that outlawed segregation in public schools.
Soon after the Briggs case, Waring retired from the bench and having become a pariah in his home town and state, he moved to New York where he lived the rest of his life. When he died in 1968 and was buried in Charleston’s Magnolia Cemetery, only 12 whites but over 200 blacks attended his funeral.
In his famous 1963 Letter from the Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “One day the South will recognize its true heroes.” That day came on April 11, 2014 for one of our greatest heroes, Judge Waring.
On Friday, in ceremonies in a small park beside the Federal Court where Waring sat and just down the street from where he lived at 61 Meeting Street, a large crowd, including U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, gathered and praised Judge Waring. A life-sized statue of Judge Waring was unveiled.
Finally, South Carolina recognized one of its true heroes. We should all be proud of this.
In South Carolina our triumphs are all tangled up in our tragedies and while the treatment of Waring in the 1950s and 60s was a tragedy, the recognition of him now is a triumph.
In a larger sense, this long overdue recognition of Judge Waring is just another in a series of positive developments that shows there is a new South Carolina being born. It has been long in coming and there have been many fits and starts along the way — and we are not there yet.
And lest we forget, this new South Carolina that we so desperately need and hope for is not fully born yet. In the same city of Charleston, only a few blocks from Waring’s statute, less than a month ago, Judge Waring’s alma mater, the College of Charleston, chose an unapologetic and unreconstructed Confederate as its new President.
Another quote from Dr. King later in his life seems fitting today: “Things are not like they ought to be, and things are not like they are going to be, but thank God things are not like they were.”
I suspect Judge Waring would agree.
Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and president of the SC New Democrats.