Of all the names of American heroes you probably don’t know, Julius Waties Waring has to rank near the top of the list. Waring was a judge in South Carolina in the mid-20th century. He’s famous to those who know for many courageous stands, but he’s probably best known for writing in one opinion that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” That was in 1951, three years before Brown v. Board of Education. In Charleston, South Carolina. Now that’s a set of stones, no?
Charleston these days is a gorgeous and ever more cosmopolitan city where, if you pick your spots carefully—the art galleries, certain restaurants—you can run into more Democrats than Republicans, maybe. But Chucktown has been molasses-slow to acknowledge the brave legacy of Waring. Finally this month, he got his due. A statue was dedicated outside the same federal courthouse building where he heard his cases.
Everyone of course came. Oh, wait. Everyone didn’t come. Some Democrats showed up, led by Eric Holder. But no local Republican of any note came.
According to the Charleston Post and Courier, Sen. Lindsey Graham had another event he’d planned “months before.” Rep. Mark Sanford, the Appalachian trail-hopping ex-governor who now represents the city in Congress, spent the day in Washington. (It was a Friday.) And the best excuse of all goes to Tim Scott, the junior senator after Graham, who is African-American. Scott had some meetings, and then “some personal things that needed attending.” He at least did send an aide.
If this seems like a small, so-what kind of thing to you, I submit two thoughts. First, you’re maybe not familiar enough with Waring’s career. He made it to the federal bench in 1942. He made, for a few years, no unusual rulings, although being on the bench did bring him face to face with his city and state’s official segregation in a way that simply being a prosperous attorney had not. He began by ending segregation in his courtroom. Somewhere in there he divorced his first wife, a Charleston girl, and took up with and married a Connecticut woman, who may have influenced his views. He issued an opinion holding that the state had to pay black teachers the same as it paid whites, and another ordering that the University of South Carolina law school admit black students, or that the state open a truly equal law school for African-Americans.
In 1948, Waring ended the state Democratic Party’s “white primary” and ruled that Charleston’s “Negroes” were entitled to “full participation in [Democratic] Party affairs.” The party had to let them enroll and vote, which they did, 35,000 strong, in that year’s primary elections. (Yes, as conservatives will gleefully note as if they’re scoring a point by mentioning 80-year-old and no longer relevant history, the Democratic Party was the racist party at the time.)
Then in 1951 came his famous dissent in Briggs v. Elliott, in which he wrote the sentence I quote above. Waring’s famous sentence came from his dissent—that is to say, by 2-1, the three-judge federal panel upheld South Carolina’s segregation. But the Supreme Court agreed to hear Briggs, which it then combined into Brown. When the high court ruled in Brown, the Charleston circuit court, of course, reversed itself. So Waring was boldly ahead of his time, and he provided the jurisprudential basis for Brown by being the first-ever federal judge to say, plainly and straightforwardly, that segregated schools were wrong and that “separate but unequal” was a practical impossibility and a pernicious lie.
So he was a huge figure. Charleston had rejected him in part because he rejected it. He retired shortly after his Briggs ruling and moved with his wife to New York City, of all lamentable places, obviously wanting to have nothing to do with Charleston, the South, or any of it. But now the city has finally decided to honor its own, so let’s not pretend no one down there understands the importance of what he did.
The second thought I submit is that while politicians do indeed have scheduling commitments that arise months in advance, they also cancel them regularly to go do something else. I’ve been on the business end of some of those cancellations myself. So Graham, Scott, and Sanford could have found a way to make it to Charleston if it really mattered to them.
I am not saying that the fact that they didn’t go makes them racists. That would be unfair in Graham’s and Sanford’s case, and kind of preposterous in Scott’s case. I am saying, however, that it seems as if they didn’t go because, well, no one they knew and cared about wanted them to go. For Graham, certainly, locked in a primary fight against Tea Partiers, but really for any South Carolina Republican no good could possibly come of attending a celebration of one of the state’s most important liberals.
The presence of Holder, Mr. Fast and Furious himself, only made things worse. Why, imagine. What with everyone having cameras on them these days, someone might have snapped a picture of one of the Republicans shaking Holder’s hand! So it’s not a reflection on the men—although it is that—so much as it is on the modern GOP, Palmetto State Branch. And it’s shameful.
Meanwhile, across our United States, schools are resegregating at a record clip, thanks to the Republican appointees who constitute a Supreme Court majority that believes trying to desegregate schools by edict is nearly as malevolent as the old practice of segregating them. The resegregation is happening faster, surprise surprise, down South than anywhere else. What they seem to need are more tributes to figures like Waring, and Republicans in particular are the people who need to attend them.