COLUMBIA, S.C. — A federal judge in South Carolina has published a book telling the lesser-known story of how an earlier federal judge from his home state set the stage for the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in Brown v. Board of Education.
The book by U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel is called “Unexampled Courage: The Blinding of Sgt. Isaac Woodard and the Awakening of President Harry S. Truman and Judge J. Waties Waring.”
Gergel has overseen difficult cases during his time on the bench himself, working in the same federal courthouse where Waring once sat in Charleston, where he oversaw the trial and sentencing of Charleston church shooter and white supremacist Dylann Roof.
He said he took an interest in Waring in law school, which later intensified after he found himself presiding over the judge’s former courtroom. Today, a statue of Waring stands in that court, which has been renamed the J. Waties Waring Judicial Center.
Gergel explained that Waring, who was the son of a Confederate soldier who grew up in Charleston during the height of Jim Crow policies, had a change of heart during his time on the bench. A big part of this change happened when Waring oversaw the case of Woodard, a black man who was beaten and blinded during a confrontation with police as he was returning home from World War II, Gergel said.
The case against the officers who beat the highly decorated soldier was heard only after public outcry led President Harry Truman to order a federal investigation. This led to the indictment of the local sheriff, whose case was heard in Waring’s courtroom. Despite overwhelming evidence, an all-white jury returned a not-guilty verdict, leading to an acquittal.
“Before that, Waring didn’t question black disenfranchisement, but after that, he realized the whole system was based on violence and force,” Gergel said. “Once he saw it, he could never look at it the same.”
Armand Derfner, a civil rights attorney and founding partner at Derfner & Altman in Charleston, said that Gergel’s book also tells the story of disenfranchised African-Americans who sacrificed their own relative safety and comfort to bring lawsuits to put an end to segregation.
“The title of the book ‘Unexampled Courage,’ refers to standing up for what is right. These people lost their jobs, they got threatened, they got assaulted, and went through hell to get to desegregation,” Derfner said.
After the Woodard case, Waring changed his views on civil rights, and this is reflected in his opinions in multiple cases leading up to Briggs v. Elliott, which later was tied into Brown v. Board of Education, Gergel said.
Waring had already decided in favor of African-American plaintiffs in both Elmore v. Rice and Brown v. Baskin, both of which dealt with voting rights for African-Americans. But then Briggs, which initially challenged the inequality between black and white schools in Clarendon County, came before his court.
In Briggs, future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall asked not only for equal treatment for the African-American students involved, but that segregation be declared unconstitutional. As a result, a three-judge panel heard the case, and Waring was outvoted 2-1, setting the stage for the eventual Supreme Court appeal.
But Gergel said Waring’s dissent paved the way for the court’s decision in Brown.
“When the three-judge panel convened, there hadn’t been a federal judge in America that had specifically addressed that Plessy v. Ferguson didn’t meet the separate-but-equal doctrine,” Gergel said. “He concluded that segregation was always unequal, that it is per se inequality, and said that if the Supreme Court confronted Plessy doctrine, it’d be overturned, and Waring was proven right.”
When the Supreme Court eventually voted unanimously to overturn the separate but equal doctrine, Gergel said they used the same language and reasoning that Waring had written in his dissent.
I.S. Leevy Johnson, the first African-American graduate of the University of South Carolina School of Law and president of the South Carolina Bar Association, and founding partner at Johnson, Toal & Battiste in Columbia, said that the story Gergel tells is just as important today as it was when segregation was in effect.
“The overall theme of the book was the profound impact and the pervasiveness of white supremacy,” he said. “It provokes concerns regarding whether or not that type of attitude still exists in America. … Too many people are suffering from an illusion of inclusion and they don’t realize that there still is a lot of work to be done.”
Gergel said judges love the story because it shows a judge doing what they aspire toward daily: upholding the rule of law.
“Judge Waring showed great courage,” Gergel said. “He tried to resolve to do the right thing, he thought that that was his duty and that was needed to uphold his oath of office. It’s inspiring to all judges.”