Charleston Journalist Shares the Story of an Unlikely Civil Rights Hero

Dec 14, 2018

Statue of Judge Waring in Charleston's federal courthouse garden.
Credit Victoria Hansen/SC Public Radio

When Charleston journalist Brian Hicks first heard the story of U.S. District Judge Julius Waties Waring, he knew what he must do; write a book about it.  He says the son of a Confederate soldier became an unlikely civil rights "hero," and that's a word Hicks doesn't often use. Yet, Waring's name is still fairly unfamiliar, and he was an eighth generation Charlestonian.

"I could not believe this guy whose family had been here since the beginning, belonged to all the right clubs and was you know connected to everyone, would basically change his whole life by going against that society and that culture," Hicks said.

Hicks' book is titled, "In Darkest South Carolina", a project started more than a decade ago. He says he just got busy, side tracked.  The well-known newspaper columnist has written several books including, "The Mayor" about longtime Charleston mayor Joe Riley.

Hicks keeps a picture of judge Waring above his desk.  Waring has piercing eyes and a sharp nose.  He appears to be looking down.

"I was never able to forget him, and so finally a few years ago I picked him back up and I'm glad I did it," said Hicks.

Born in 1880, Waring seemed destined to be cemented in southern life.  His ancestors owned slaves. His father fought in the Civil War.  His family and friends were lawmakers, newspaper owners, and a governor. He had a home on Meeting Street downtown and a well to do wife.

Waring could have led a very comfortable life.  But instead, Hicks says, he led by doing what he thought was right.

When Waring took the bench as a federal judge in 1942, Hicks says he chose to put the law above politics.  His justice was color blind.  He integrated his courtroom and juries, and ruled in favor of equal pay for teachers, regardless of race.

He also presided over a case that Hicks says became a catalyst in his evolving fight for change.  A black soldier coming home from war had been beaten blind by police.  Jurors failed to convict the police chief.

"After that, Waring became a little more of an activist judge is what we would call him today," said Hicks.

In his courtroom listening to that case, a woman Waring left his wife of 30 years to marry, Elizabeth Hoffman.  She was from the north and twice divorced. The relationship angered his friends and family.  But Hicks says claims Waring became an outcast just because of her aren't true.  He was vilified for his views, which the two began to share.

"People weren't burning crosses in his yard because he got a divorce."

President Harry Truman sent federal marshals to protect the couple after judge Waring opened South Carolina's once all white democratic primaries to black voters.  But threats and bricks through his windows didn't stop him.  Waring went on to hear a desegregation lawsuit that ultimately became the landmark case, ""Brown v. Board of Education".

Commemorative marker outside the J. Waties Waring Judicial Center in Charleston.
Credit Victoria Hansen/SC Public Radio

The "Briggs v. Elliott" case, as it was called, out of Clarendon County was originally over equal access to public school buses.   But Waring encouraged attorney Thurgood Marshall to take it further.

"He said now what you've got to do; you've got to challenge the whole system.  He said segregation is per se inequality and there is no separate but equal."

Three judges had to decide the case, Waring and two others.  Marshall knew he would lose.  But Waring was certain the 2 to 1 vote would set up an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.  That's exactly what happened and the case went on to become one of five in "Brown v. Board of Education".

Post and Courier columnist and author Brian Hicks.

Hicks' research took him to Howard University where he sifted through some 70 boxes of Waring's documents and letters.  He also read through hundreds of pages of transcripts from interviews professors with Columbia University conducted with Waring after he retired in New York.  Hicks says drafts of letters were particularly insightful, revealing what Hicks says the judge had never publicly admitted; he helped set up the "Briggs v. Elliott" case.

"In this draft he's directing Thurgood Marshall what to put in the lawsuit that's in his courtroom and telling him how to fix it so they can put it on the U.S. Supreme Court's desk."

Waring didn't get much recognition for the landmark decision that ended segregation in public schools, even though some of his words were used.  Hicks believes it was because the judge was so hated, the high court worried the south might not accept the decision with his name attached.

Waring and his wife, meantime, fled town.  They came back, Hicks says, only once to be honored by the Charleston NAACP.

Decades later, the city that once shunned the judge began to embrace him.  In 2014, a statue of Waring went up in the federal courthouse garden.  A small plaque and recording share his story.

A year later, the building was renamed in his honor.  It was the Hollings Judicial Center.  But Hicks says former Senator Ernest "Fritz" Hollings pushed for the change.  The ceremony had to be moved inside nearby however, because of record rain that flooded the state and closed the courthouse for two days.

Hicks hopes his book helps lift the cloud that has shrouded the judge's legacy and brings more attention to the city's civil rights history.  The Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau has purchased copies, sending them to VIPs and travel writers.

As a journalist, Hicks has covered politics for 30 years.  He jokes that in a world where everyone has an angle, even the "good ones"; judge Waring's perspective is refreshing.

"If the judge had simply gone on and did what society expected of him, he would have never have had a problem in the world," said Hicks.  "But he decided he wanted to do the right thing, no matter what it cost him."

"It's a good example of how one person can make a difference, change the world."