April 26, 2019

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The Black Sergeant and the White Judge Who Changed Civil Rights History

The Black Sergeant and the White Judge Who Changed Civil Rights History
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Permanently disabled, Woodard moved to the Bronx, and for a while traveled as a celebrity victim of racist violence under the sponsorship of the N.A.A.C.P. Orson Welles publicized Woodard’s case on his radio show, helping to incite widespread demand for Shull’s prosecution. Woodard’s story recedes as Gergel recounts the history of the book’s two other central characters: Judge J. Waties Waring, who presided in Shull’s trial, and President Harry S. Truman. This strategy is largely effective, although some of the socioeconomic and Cold War contexts to which this great legal saga owes much go undeveloped.

[ Read our profile of Richard Gergel here ]

Waring occupied the same Charleston courthouse that Gergel now does; he is Gergel’s hero, and deservedly so, despite the fact that our current historical moment may not allow much room for white champions of civil rights. Drawing on Waring’s papers, rich oral histories, F.B.I. records, Richard Kluger’s classic work “Simple Justice” and Caryl Phillips’s lyrical treatment of Waring in his book “The Atlantic Sound,” among other works of civil rights scholarship, Gergel paints a vivid portrait of Waring and his second wife, Elizabeth, a Northern import to Charleston who eventually became an outspoken critic of segregation.

Waring, born in 1880, was a Charleston patrician whose ancestors were slaveholders and whose father was a Confederate soldier. He had long been a Southern Democrat and tacit supporter of segregation until after he was appointed a federal judge in 1942 and confronted cases bearing evidence of Jim Crow’s brutal handiwork. The judge had read the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause and come to the realization, he said, that he could either remain “entirely governed by the doctrine of white supremacy,” or be “a federal judge and decide the law.” He began to explore a different history of Reconstruction than the one most other white South Carolinians knew, drawing inspiration especially from Gunnar Myrdal’s 1,400-page study, “An American Dilemma.”

Beginning in 1944, in Duvall v. Seignous, when Waring issued a consent decree providing equal pay for a black teacher, he presided over a series of cases that ultimately helped pave the road for the Brown v. Board decision of 1954. In 1945, in Thompson v. Gibbes, another pay-equity case, Waring explicitly overruled states’ rights, declaring that a state “cannot deprive the federal courts of jurisdiction granted them under the Constitution.”

In November 1946, Shull stood trial in Waring’s courtroom. Gergel provides a detailed account of the incompetent and racist lawyering conducted by the government’s attorneys. Woodard’s testimony profoundly affected Waring and his wife, forcing them, Gergel writes, to “stare into the Southern racial abyss” as never before. Nevertheless, Shull was acquitted quickly by an all-white jury, with the defense counsel warning that if a “decision against the government means seceding, then let South Carolina secede again.” Waring called the trial’s travesty of justice his “baptism of fire.”



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