Judge Richard Gergel, a 1979 Duke Law graduate and U.S. District Court judge for the District of South Carolina, spoke to Duke Law students on Monday, Nov. 11, about his new book, Unexampled Courage: The Blinding of Sgt. Isaac Woodard and the Awakening of President Harry S. Truman and Judge J. Waties Waring (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2019), which tells the story of a Southern judge’s critical role in early civil rights history.
Waring, a predecessor of Gergel’s in the Charleston, S.C., federal courthouse, became convinced of the fundamental wrongs of segregation after presiding over a 1946 case involving a black U.S. Army veteran who was viciously beaten and blinded by a South Carolina police chief. Waring’s awakening led to his pivotal dissent in the 1951 case of Briggs v. Elliott, which became the model for the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
Gergel’s book was reviewed earlier this year by The New York Times and has generated tremendous interest in a story that had previously been virtually untold. Noting that he has received more invitations to speak about his book than he can accommodate with his busy “day job” as a federal judge, Gergel said he has tried to prioritize opportunities to speak to judicial audiences and to law students.
“For my judicial colleagues, I want to inspire in them the same sense of purpose and civic and judicial courage that Judge Waring demonstrated, and I will say that the response I’ve gotten has been almost overwhelming from my colleagues,” Gergel said. “For law students, I want to share this story for a different reason. As you are going through this process you are acquiring skills and eventually a law license that will put you in a position to do an immense amount of good. Whether you are in big law, a small law firm, a prosecutor’s office, or in a public defender’s office — wherever you land, your skills will enable you to do justice. This story shares how different people, from different walks of life, committed to doing the right thing and to creating a more just society, can do it through the law. I feel it’s so important to share this historic moment, which I think best exemplifies that.”
For more on Gergel and Unexampled Courage: