Jurist. Waring was born in Charleston on July 27, 1880, the son of Edward Perry Waring, Charleston County superintendent of education, and Anna Thomasine Waties. Following primary and secondary schooling at Charleston’s private University School and an undergraduate education at the College of Charleston, he read law with the trial attorney J. P. Kennedy Bryan, a friend of his father. Waring passed the bar and began law practice in his native city. On October 30, 1913, Waring married Annie Gammell, a well-connected woman a year his senior. Two years later they moved into Annie Waring’s house at 61 Meeting Street in the elite section of Charleston south of Broad Street. The marriage produced one daughter.
Waring’s involvement in Democratic politics earned him an appointment in 1914 as assistant U.S. attorney for South Carolina’s eastern district, a post he held for the balance of the Woodrow Wilson administration. He then formed a law partnership with David A. Brockinton, which thrived in the 1920s but fell on relatively hard times during the Depression. Following the election of his political ally Burnet Rhett Maybank as Charleston’s mayor in 1931, Waring won appointment as corporation counsel, or city attorney.
In that position, Waring continued to maintain close political ties with Maybank, U.S. senator Ellison D. “Cotton Ed” Smith, and other powerful Democratic politicians. In late 1941, when the U.S. district judgeship became vacant in Charleston, Maybank, by now a U.S. senator, helped to engineer President Franklin Roosevelt’s nomination of Waring for the position. “Cotton Ed” also supported Waring, and on January 20, 1942, the Senate confirmed the choice without objection.
Waring’s first two years as judge of the federal district court for South Carolina’s eastern district were largely uneventful. In 1944, however, he began handing down decisions equalizing the salaries of black and white teachers, ordering the state to desegregate its law school or create an equal facility for blacks, and rebuffing South Carolina’s efforts to salvage its all-white Democratic primary. The judge’s rulings angered white South Carolinians. In addition, his 1945 divorce from his wife of more than thirty years, followed almost immediately by his marriage to Elizabeth Hoffman, a twice-divorced northern matron, enraged his family and former friends.
Waring later attributed what he called his growing “passion for justice” to his new wife’s liberalizing influence and the increased awareness of southern racism he acquired on the federal bench. But white Charlestonians, including his nephew Tom, the editor of the Charleston News and Courier, contended that the judge was simply seeking revenge against a society that had refused to accept his divorce and second wife.
Whatever Waring’s motivation, he and Elizabeth broke completely with his segregationist past. They entertained prominent blacks in the Meeting Street house the judge had purchased from Annie Waring, spoke to African American and racially mixed audiences in Charleston and throughout the nation, and scorned the “decadence” of the white southern “slavocracy.” Unabashed racists were not the only targets of their wrath. Most southern liberals favored improvement in the economic conditions of blacks as a prelude to desegregation. Such “gradualists,” the Warings charged, were even worse than avowed segregationists. When two members of a three-judge district court, in Briggs v. Elliott (1951), rejected a challenge to South Carolina’s segregated public schools, Judge Waring registered a vehement dissent, declaring, several years before the Supreme Court’s Brown ruling, that segregation was “per se inequality.”
Well before his Briggs dissent, the Warings had become pariahs in his native state. Responding to petitions from thousands of constituents, L. Mendel Rivers and other members of South Carolina’s congressional delegation campaigned unsuccessfully for the judge’s impeachment. A cross was burned on their lawn and their house stoned in incidents that white Charlestonians attributed to teenage pranksters but that the judge and Elizabeth—taunted as the “witch of Meeting Street” by locals—declared to be the work of the Ku Klux Klan.
In 1952 Judge Waring—eligible for retirement at full pay and increasingly disenchanted at the prospects for southern racial reform—retired from the bench, and he and Elizabeth departed Charleston for a life of “exile” in New York City. There they enjoyed for a time the adulation denied them by most white South Carolinians and were active in a variety of civil rights efforts. But they also remained contemptuous of the fainthearted in such struggles.
Judge Waring died on January 11, 1968. Elizabeth died in late October of that year. His body was returned to Charleston for burial, which was attended by more than two hundred blacks but fewer than a dozen whites. But time and politics healed wounds and blurred memories. White politicians began vying for black votes, and some of the Warings’ African American friends became active in the community’s civic affairs. In 1981 a sculpture honoring Judge Waring’s memory was placed in the city council chamber, overlooking the federal courthouse in which he had once presided.
Waring, J. Waties. Papers. Moreland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University, Washington, D.C.
Yarbrough, Tinsley E. A Passion for Justice: J. Waties Waring and Civil Rights. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.