Three decades ago Charleston resident Stephen Hoffius began a family tradition on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday when he took his children to the graves of a civil rights icon and a federal judge who changed the course of racially segregated schools.
On bended knees with brushes in hand, Hoffius and his daughter, Anna, and his son, Jacob, cleaned the headstones and laid flowers on the graves of U.S. District Judge Julius Waties Waring and Septima Poinsette Clark.
“At that time nobody was doing anything for King’s birthday except having a parade and taking a day off from work,” said Hoffius, a freelance editor and writer. “I wanted to focus on him and the work that he did. It was important for me to teach my kids about civil rights heroes in Charleston.”
In 1952, Waring was the dissenting vote on a three-judge panel hearing an appeal in the 1951 Briggs v. Elliott case that challenged school segregation in Clarendon County. Although the black families lost Waring’s observation that “segregation is per se inequality” laid the legal framework for the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that outlawed segregated schools. Waring also ruled favorably in other court challenges to racist practices. Waring died Jan. 11, 1968. He is buried in Magnolia Cemetery.
King called Clark the mother of the civil rights movement. Clark, a Charleston public school teacher, served on the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s executive board and crafted the SCLC’s literacy and citizenship workshops. Because of her activism, South Carolina fired her as a teacher in 1956 and stripped away her retirement. Decades later, those benefits were reinstated. Clark is buried in Old Bethel United Methodist Cemetery near Magnolia. She died Dec. 15, 1987.
“I took Jacob as a baby in my arms to Septima Clark’s funeral,” Hoffius recalled. “When they were little, we’d stand at both stones, and I’d ask the kids to tell me something about each individual. They would reluctantly, making it seem like it was torture,” Hoffius said laughing. Years later in a public speaking competition Anna talked about Clark.
Today, Jacob Hoffius is a teacher in Guatemala, and Anna Hoffius is a North Charleston pediatrician.
In the late 1970s, Hoffius interviewed Clark for a profile in Southern Exposure magazine. That interaction led to a friendship.
On few occasions, others have joined Hoffius and his children at the graves. Post and Courier writer Brian Hicks and U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel joined them. Family friend Jessica Lancia also stood with them one year. She wrote her master’s paper on the judge’s wife and civil rights activist Elizabeth Avery Waring.
Hoffius plans to quietly carrying on the family’s tradition. “I am not asking anyone to join us,” he said. “I think people should do whatever they want to honor Martin Luther King. But don’t make it just a day off. Make it something special.”