|Isaac Woodard, Jr.|
March 18, 1919|
Fairfield County, South Carolina
|Died||September 23, 1992
Bronx, New York
|Resting Place||Calverton National Cemetery
Calverton, New York
|Allegiance||United States of America|
|Service/branch||United States Army|
|Years of service||1942 - 1946|
|Battles/wars||World War II|
|Awards|| Good Conduct Medal American Campaign Medal
Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal
World War II Victory Medal
Isaac Woodard, Jr., often written Isaac Woodward, (March 18, 1919 – September 23, 1992) was an African American World War II veteran whose 1946 beating and maiming, hours after being discharged from the United States Army, sparked national outrage and galvanized the civil rights movement in the United States.
Still in uniform, Woodard was left completely and permanently blind after a run-in with police. The sheriff involved claimed that he had struck Woodard only once in self-defense, although Woodard claimed otherwise, and suffered a ruptured cornea and complete blindness in both eyes. South Carolina's reluctance to bring the sheriff to trial prompted federal involvement.
Woodard, born in Fairfield County, South Carolina, grew up in Goldsboro, North Carolina. He enlisted in the United States Army on October 14, 1942 at Fort Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina and served in the Pacific Theater in a labor battallion as a longshoreman. He earned a battle star, for unloading ships under fire in New Guinea, and a Good Conduct Medal, in addition to the Service medal and World War II Victory Medal awarded to all American participants in the conflict. He received an honorable discharge.
Some details of the incident remain unclear, with contemporary newspaper reports conflicting on some points. Newspapers also frequently misstated Woodard's surname as "Woodward". Woodard himself suffered partial amnesia from the trauma, in addition to his blindness.
On February 12, 1946, U.S. Army Sergeant Isaac Woodard Jr. was on a Greyhound Lines bus traveling from Camp Gordon in Augusta, Georgia, where he was "mustered out" en route to his family in North Carolina. The bus came to a stop just outside of Augusta, and Woodard asked the bus driver if there was time for him to use a restroom. The driver grudgingly acceded to the request after an argument with Woodard. Once the stop was completed, Woodard returned to his seat without incident, and the bus departed.
The bus then stopped in Batesburg (now Batesburg-Leesville, South Carolina). Though Woodard did not protest, the driver contacted the local police (including Chief of Police Linwood Shull), who forcibly removed Woodard from the bus. After demanding to see his discharge papers, a group of police officers, including Shull, took him to a nearby alleyway, where they proceeded to beat him repeatedly with nightsticks. Woodard was then taken to the town jail and arrested for disorderly conduct, accused of drinking beer in the back of the bus with other soldiers.
While newspaper accounts of what transpired next vary, attorney and author Michael R. Gardner wrote, "In none of the papers is there any suggestion there was verbal or physical violence on the part of Sergeant Woodard. It’s quite unclear what really happened. What did happen with certainty is the next morning when the sun came up, Sergeant Isaac Woodard was blind for life." During the course of the night in jail, Shull blinded Woodard. Woodard also suffered partial amnesia as a result of the injuries.
In his court testimony, Woodard stated that he was punched in the eyes several times on the way to the jail, and later repeatedly jabbed in his eyes with a Billy club. Despite newspaper accounts indicating that Woodard's eyes had been "gouged out", historical documents indicate that each globe was ruptured irreparably in the socket.
The following morning, the police sent him before the local judge, who promptly found him guilty and fined him fifty dollars. He requested medical assistance, but it took two days for a doctor to be sent to him. Not knowing where he was and still suffering from amnesia, Woodard ended up in a hospital in Aiken, South Carolina, receiving substandard medical care.
Three weeks after he was reported missing by his relatives, he was discovered in the hospital. Woodard was immediately rushed to an Army hospital in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Though his memory had begun to recover by that time, doctors found both eyes were damaged beyond repair.
Though the case was not widely reported in the immediate aftermath of the attack, it was soon reported extensively in major newspapers around the nation. The NAACP worked to publicize Woodard's plight, campaigning for the state government of South Carolina to address the issue, which it frequently dismissed.
Woodard's story also emerged in popular culture. On his ABC radio show Orson Welles Commentaries, actor and filmmaker Orson Welles crusaded for the punishment of Shull and his accomplices. On the broadcast July 28, 1946, Welles read an affadavit sent to him by the NAACP, signed by Woodard, and criticized the reaction of the South Carolina government as intolerable and shameful. Woodard was the focus of Welles's show in the four subsequent broadcasts. "The NAACP felt that these broadcasts did more than anything else to prompt the Justice Department to act on the case," wrote the Museum of Broadcasting.
The story emerged in music as well. A month after the beating, calypso artist Lord Invader recorded an anti-racism song for his album Calypso at Midnight entitled "God Made Us All", with the last line of the song directly referencing the incident.
Later that year, folk artist Woody Guthrie would record a song for his album The Great Dust Storm entitled "The Blinding of Isaac Woodard", saying he wrote the song "...so's you wouldn't be forgetting what happened to this famous Negro soldier less than three hours after he got his Honorable Discharge down in Atlanta...."
On September 19, 1946, seven months after the incident, NAACP Executive Secretary Walter Francis White met with President Harry S Truman in the Oval Office to discuss the Woodard case. Gardner writes that when Truman "heard this story in the context of the state authorities of South Carolina doing nothing for seven months, he exploded." The following day, Truman wrote a letter to Attorney General Tom C. Clark demanding that action be taken to address South Carolina's apparent reluctance to try the case. Six days later, on September 26, Truman directed the United States Department of Justice to open an investigation on the case.
A short investigation ensued, and on October 2, Shull and several of his officers were indicted in U.S. District Court in Columbia, South Carolina. The case was brought to the federal level on the grounds that the beating had occurred at a bus stop on federal property, and that at the time of the assault, Woodard was in uniform. The case was presided over by Judge Julius Waties Waring.
By all accounts, the trial was a travesty. The local U.S. Attorney charged with handling the case failed to interview anyone except the bus driver, a decision that Waring, a civil rights proponent, believed was a gross dereliction of duty. Waring would later write of his disgust of the way the case was handled at the local level, commenting, "I was shocked by the hypocrisy of my government...in submitting that disgraceful case...."
The behavior of the defense was no better. When the defense attorney began to shout racial epithets at Woodard, Waring had it stopped immediately. During the trial, the defense attorney also stated to the jury that "if you rule against Shull, then let this South Carolina secede again." After Woodard gave his account of the events, Shull firmly denied it, claiming that Woodard had threatened him with a gun, and that Shull had used his nightclub to defend himself. During this testimony, Shull admitted that he repeatedly struck Woodard in the eyes.
On November 5, after thirty minutes of deliberation, Shull was found not guilty on all charges despite his admission that he had blinded Woodard. The courtroom broke into applause upon hearing the verdict. The failure to convict Shull was perceived as a political failure on the part of the Truman administration. Shull died in Batesburg, South Carolina on December 27, 1997 at the age of 95.
Isaac Woodard moved North after the incident and lived in the greater New York City metropolitan area for the rest of his life. He died in the Veterans Administration Hospital in the Bronx on September 23, 1992 at the age of 73, and was buried with military honors at the Calverton National Cemetery in Calverton, New York (Section 15, Site 2180).
Impact on American politics
In July 1948, over the objection of senior military officers, Truman promulgated Executive Order 9981, banning racial discrimination in the U.S. Armed Forces. This was done as a response to a number of incidents against black veterans, most notably the Woodard case.
Perhaps owing to his involvement in the Woodard case and his civil rights activism, Truman lost some support in his 1948 reelection bid against Thomas Dewey. Though he narrowly won, his continued championing of civil rights, a cause contrary to public opinion of the time, cost him greatly. Due to low approval ratings and a bad showing in early primaries, Truman quit a re-election bid in 1952, even though he was exempt from limitations under the 22nd amendment.
Impact on popular culture
On the July 28, 1946, broadcast of his ABC radio series Orson Welles Commentaries, Orson Welles read an affidavit sent to him by the NAACP, signed by Woodard. Welles promised to root out the officer responsible, and made the case a major focus of his weekly show. On September 28, 1946, Welles fulminated against the then-unnamed lawman who blinded Woodard as "Officer X":
What does it cost to be a Negro? In Aiken, South Carolina it cost a man his eyes. What does it cost to wear over your skeleton the pinkish tint officially described as white? In Aiken, South Carolina it cost a man his soul... Your eyes, Officer X, your eyes, remember, were not gouged away, only the lids are closed. You might raise the lids, you might just try the wild adventure of looking, you might see something. It might be a simple truth, one of those truths held to be self-evident by our founding fathers and by most of us. If we should ever find you bravely blinking at the sun, we will know then that the world is young after all, that chaos is behind us and not ahead. Then there will be shouting of trumpets to rouse the dead at Gettysburg, a thunder of cannon will declare the tidings of peace, and all the bells of liberty will laugh out loud in the streets to celebrate goodwill towards all men.
Welles also gave an account of the Woodard case on the May 7, 1955, broadcast of his BBC TV series Orson Welles' Sketch Book. He commented, "I'm willing to admit that the policeman has a difficult job, a very hard job. But it's the essence of our society that a policeman's job should be hard. He's there to protect the free citizen, not to chase criminals — that's an incidental part of the job."
- Honorable Discharge Paperwork
- Woodard testimony, November 1947 Part 2
- View All Archives: UVA NewsMakers
- Woodard testimony, November 1947 Part 3
- Orson Welles Commentaries — "Affidavit of Isaac Woodward", July 28, 1946
- Orson Welles on the Air: The Radio Years. New York: The Museum of Broadcasting, catalogue for exhibition October 28–December 3, 1988, page 66
- The Blinding of Isaac Woodward (Woody Guthrie; 1946)
- The Stan Iverson Memorial Library, Infoshop & Anarchist Archives
- Welles, Orson, and Peter Bogdanovich, This is Orson Welles. New York: HarperCollins Publishers 1992 ISBN 0-06-016616-9 pp. 398, 417
- Picture of Isaac Woodard
- Isaac Woodard court transcripts, military documentation, and assorted primary documents
- The Blinding of Isaac Woodward (sic)
- Practical Moral Philosophy for Lawyers - discusses Woodard case in some detail
- UVA NewsMakers: Harry Truman and Civil Rights: Moral Courage and Political Risks - discusses Woodard case in some detail
- Philleo Nash History Interview - from the Truman Library website
- "The Blinding of Isaac Woodward" (sic) - from the History in Song website
- Isaac Woodard at Find a Grave