APRIL 11, 2014 — The same South Carolina federal judge whose dissent framed the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 decision to end school segregation also had a long impact on South Carolina politics.
The late U.S. District Judge J. Waties Waring, an eighth-generation Charlestonian finally being honored today with the unveiling of a statue commemorating his courage and legacy, is generally lauded for his 1951 dissent in a Clarendon County civil rights case, Briggs v. Elliott. He was the first federal judge to write that segregation was unconstitutional since the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision by the U.S. Supreme Court case that enabled institutionalized segregation through a ruling that public facilities could be “separate but equal.”
The Briggs dissent, however, wasn’t why Waring became a pariah in his hometown. It was just the icing on the cake. Waring became an outcast socially by divorcing his wife of 32 years and then promptly marrying a Northerner. But he became loathed by many throughout the state after he struck down the all-white Democratic primary in a 1947 ruling.
In 1944, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down an all-white primary in Texas. But South Carolina’s leaders didn’t cotton to that decision and thought they could skirt it by stripping the state’s legal code of any mention of the world “primary.” As writer Richard Kluger described in “Simple Justice,” state legislators repealed 150 statutes “on the theory that no court could thereafter hold that a primary election was ‘state action’ if there were no state laws on the books that said a word about primaries.” In practice, little changed and the all-white Democratic primary essentially became a private club for white voters. And blacks couldn’t join the club.
But a Columbia man then challenged the state’s new system. And leaders ran smack into Waties Waring, who had increasingly delivered moderate decisions in a state that didn’t want them.
Waring applied the ruling in the Texas case to South Carolina and ordered the end of the all-white primary. He wrote:
“It is time for South Carolina to rejoin the Union,. It is time to fall in step with the other states and to adopt the American way of conducting elections … Racial distinctions cannot exist in the machinery that selects the officers and lawmakers of the United States.”
In spite of an appellate ruling that upheld Waring’s decision, South Carolina’s leaders tried again to keep its closed primary, the only election that really mattered then according to historian Jack Bass. This time, state Democratic leaders decided to require voters to take an oath that they supported state’s rights and separate but equal schools.
In a year that would find Gov. Strom Thurmond run for president as a Dixiecrat to maintain the segregated status quo, the ploy by state Democratic leaders to keep blacks out of the primary didn’t work. Waring pointedly told state leaders he would not allow the nation’s law to be violated. He told Democratic county chairmen that they would face a contempt citation and a fine or jail if they didn’t properly register black voters just like white voters.
And so, that was that. Some 35,000 newly-registered blacks voted for the first time. Interestingly, about 90 percent of them — 8 percent of the electorate, Bass writes — voted to reelect Burnet Maybank, who had been mayor of Charleston when Waring was the city’s attorney. In the 1948 Senate race, Maybank had four challengers. Thanks to the black vote, he was able to squeak through the primary without a runoff.
Waring’s election ruling in 1948 had long impacts. Because state leaders stripped the law books of mentions of primaries, political parties ran primaries until 1992, a job at which they weren’t particularly adept. Polls sometimes didn’t open. Workers didn’t show up — if there were enough of them at all.
In 2008, the state started running presidential preference primaries. And just last year, the state took over the role of registering candidates.
Bottom line: It took South Carolina almost as long to run its primary elections professionally as it did to recognize the courage and legacy of Waties Waring, once described as the “lonesomest man in town.”
Andy Brack is editor and publisher of Statehouse Report. You can reach Brack at: email@example.com.