MARCH 26, 2012, by the Rev. Joseph A. Darby Jr. — South Carolina is a better place because of people like the late J. Waties Waring. Judge Waring’s evolution from a segregationist to an advocate for civil rights and his judicial rulings that hastened the end of legal segregation are little recognized but noteworthy landmarks along the road to freedom and justice. His life and work also offer good direction as we continue to travel that winding road.
As an African-American, I appreciate and celebrate the courage of Judge Waring and of like-minded white citizens. I get my predictable share of angry letters and editorial criticism for calling attention to societal inequities related to race — that’s expected of a black preacher speaking inconvenient truth. Judge Waring and those like him, however, received stiffer and far more bitter condemnation because they’re seen as traitors to their race.
Charleston, South Carolina, and many other Southern cities are chronically afflicted by what I call “raging politeness.” Racial barriers to progress are seldom acknowledged or explored because we want to be “polite” to each other and not ruffle feathers. That’s true in the traditional black community, where some citizens place acceptance by the majority society above assertive action for change, and especially true in the traditional white community, where any suggestion that racial views need to evolve is often met with amazing hostility.
As a Charlestonian from a very old and established family, Judge Waring was treated by his community with the level of angry disdain and rejection reserved for Southerners who chose to stay loyal to the Union during the Civil War. He was literally driven out of town and lived and died as a Southern expatriate in New York, but he stood his ground and held onto his convictions. When citizens of like mind have the courage to follow his example today, we can bring South Carolina into the 20th century — and I did mean to say the 20th century — when it comes to race relations.
We still need people like J. Waties Waring because those willing to stand on principle and not accept the status quo, regardless of criticism, are as rare now as they were in Judge Waring’s day. Many citizens — white and black — quietly agreed with Judge Waring’s views but wouldn’t stand with him or defend him out of fear that they too might be threatened or rejected, and many good people are similarly reluctant today. A longtime friend of mine is a Republican elected official, although his personal political views are more in line with those of the Democratic Party. When I pointed that out, he said, “You’re right, but I can’t be elected as a Democrat in my very white district. My constituents vote by emotion, not on the basis of what needs to be done or is best for them, and although they won’t say it out loud, they won’t vote for anyone who likes black people.”
Those with views like that need to take the risk of being as visionary and progressive today as Judge Waring was in his day. In an era when “cookie cutter” state laws on voter ID’s, immigration and “castle doctrine” pander to racial fear and when candidates went on carefully-worded racial rants to gain votes in South Carolina’s GOP presidential primary, we badly need more people like J. Waties Waring. We need people who will go beyond old prejudice, old assumptions and old fears and do what’s right instead of what’s expedient and acceptable to their peers. That kind of courage and vision are timeless and badly needed to make America “…one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.”
The Rev. Joseph A. Darby Jr. is senior pastor of Morris Brown AME Church in downtown Charleston. This commentary first appeared in CharlestonCurrents.com and is republished with permission.