How The Son Of A Confederate Soldier Became A Civil Rights Hero : Code Switch In a landmark case in 1951, J. Waties Waring denounced segregation as an "evil that must be eradicated." A life-sized statue of Waring will be dedicated Friday in Charleston, S.C.
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How The Son Of A Confederate Soldier Became A Civil Rights Hero

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How The Son Of A Confederate Soldier Became A Civil Rights Hero

How The Son Of A Confederate Soldier Became A Civil Rights Hero

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Tomorrow in Charleston, South Carolina, officials will dedicate a life-size, bronze statue to a hero of the Civil Rights Movement who was vilified for his views - J. Waties Waring. He was a federal judge in Charleston, the son of a Confederate soldier. And in 1951, he denounced segregation as an evil that must be eradicated. That forceful dissent helped pave the way for the Supreme Court's Brown versus Board of Education ruling three years later.

JUDGE RICHARD GERGEL: His dissent ends up being the dissent that changed America.

BLOCK: That's U.S. District Court Judge Richard Gergel, who presides in the same courtroom where Judge Waring sat decades ago. I asked him about Waring's earlier rulings from the '40s, starting with an equal pay case brought by an African-American teacher. As Gergel explains, Judge Waring stunned the courtroom as he pointedly asked the Charleston school district's lawyers how they could justify this inequality.

GERGEL: No one was more shocked than the plaintiff's lawyer, Thurgood Marshall, who later would - in speaking about Judge Waring and that experience with the (unintelligible) case, said it was the only case he ever tried with his mouth hanging half open because he was so surprised. This was an unprecedented breakthrough victory for the Civil Rights Movement. It was 1944. And he, thereafter, progressively moved up the line. 1947, there was a very important voting rights case, Elmore versus Rice, known as the white primary case.

The question was, could African-Americans vote in the Democratic Primary, the only election that mattered at the time in South Carolina? Judge Waring ended his order by saying, it is time for South Carolina to rejoin the union and to adopt the American way of conducting elections. That decision is really what set off the vilification and attacks on him. Crosses were burned in his yard. Bricks thrown to his windows. It was his recognition of black voting rights that really alienated him from white South Carolina.

BLOCK: I can imagine that that vilification only intensified when Judge Waring dissented in that school desegregation case in 1951. The first dissent on the topic since Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, that separate the equal ruling. What was Judge Waring's reasoning when he said, as he did, segregation is per se inequality?

GERGEL: Well, Plessy was based on the concept that it was possible to have separate but equal resources, facilities, programs for black and white citizens. There had been a series of cases that had been chipping away at that. There were two in 1950s: Sweatt versus Painter, involving an allegedly separate but equal law school in Texas; and McLaurin versus Oklahoma Board of Regents, which involved African-American graduate students at the University of Oklahoma who were segregated physically in the classroom. And they both concluded that that separation was not equal. And Judge Waring, reading that, reasoned that separation is never equality, that segregation is per se inequality. And that conceptual leap is really the foundation of Brown, and it is the leap made by J. Waties Waring.

BLOCK: It was interesting to read that Judge Waring said later on that he had been really moved when he looked outside the courthouse and saw this huge crowd of black citizens who'd come in from the countryside to hear that desegregation case being argued. They'd lined up for hours.

GERGEL: Yeah. Before then, membership in the NAACP was such a threat to one's security and ability to function, African-Americans in the South, that when you had an NAACP legal case, the leadership might show up, but there was not mass attendance. And on that morning in May of 1951, when the sun rose in Charleston, African-Americans lined Broad Street as far as the eye could see.

And you're referring to, you know, an oral interview that Judge Waring gave several years after his retirement and he described the crowd. He says, this is a dramatic situation. These people entering, they were people in from the country. They'd come there on a pilgrimage. They'd never known before that anybody would stand up for them. And they came there because they believe the United States District Court was a free court and believed in freedom and liberty. And he went on to say, it was like watching a breath of freedom.

BLOCK: Those are impressive words.

GERGEL: He was the real thing. You know, one cannot read the decisions in his oral interviews and not realize this man had made an enormous transformation, gone on an incredible journey that eventually the rest of America would go on. But he went there first and he went there at, you know, at high cost to himself. I will tell you, being a federal district judge is a pretty comfortable position. If you don't rock the boat, you have a lot of status and it's very (unintelligible)...

BLOCK: You speak from experience there?

GERGEL: It's a very - I can say that from experience. And this man just sort of said, I'm about justice. I'm not just going to warm this seat and advance myself, I'm going to do something that is right for America. And in that same interview he says, you know, I've had some very unpleasant repercussions. You know, he end up leaving the city he'd lived in his first 70 years, basically living in exile in New York. He says, but on balance, I think I'm enormously fortunate because you don't often in life have an opportunity to do something that you really think is good. The other penalties don't amount to anything. They're offset by what I think is a really important contribution to the history of our country.

BLOCK: Judge Waring was interviewed on a public affairs television show in 1957, and he was asked the question about whether white Southerners were ready to be allies in something that the show called the battle of the new Negro. And let me play for you just a bit of what he said in response.


BLOCK: So he seems to be saying there, Judge Gergel, that there was a silent, fearful minority who agreed with him but couldn't say so.

GERGEL: Well, he retained all those letters and they're not just anonymous letters. There are many letters from South Carolinians who say, keep fighting, of course, I can't say anything. He knew there was a great silent South out there and the loudest voices weren't maybe the best voices in the South.

BLOCK: You know, back in 1951, there is an NAACP leader who wrote to Judge Waring and said, at some later date, the South will raise a monument to you.

GERGEL: Yes. You know, that is a remarkable letter. This is the president of the NAACP in Charleston. And he says, the people of my group have thanked God for you in the past. America will thank God for you in the future. And at some later date, the South will raise a monument to you. That date has arrived.

BLOCK: That's U.S. District Court Judge Richard M. Gergel. He'll be speaking at Friday's dedication of the statue to the late Judge J. Waties Waring in Charleston, South Carolina. Judge Gergel, thanks so much.

GERGEL: Thank you.

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