Isaac Woodard

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Isaac Woodard, Jr.
Born (1919-03-18)March 18, 1919
Fairfield County, South Carolina
Died September 23, 1992(1992-09-23) (aged 73)
Bronx, New York
Resting Place Calverton National Cemetery
Calverton, New York
Allegiance  United States of America
Service/branch United States Department of the Army Seal.svg United States Army
Years of service 1942 - 1946
Rank US Army WWII SGT.svg Sergeant
Battles/wars New Guinea, World War II
Awards Army Good Conduct ribbon.svg Good Conduct Medal American Campaign Medal ribbon.svg American Campaign Medal
Asiatic-Pacific Campaign ribbon.svg Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal
World War II Victory Medal ribbon.svg World War II Victory Medal

Isaac Woodard, Jr., often written just Isaac Woodard, (March 18, 1919 – September 23, 1992) was an African American World War II veteran who was attacked by South Carolina police in 1946, while still in uniform, hours after being honorably discharged from the United States Army. His attack and injuries sparked national outrage and galvanized the civil rights movement in the United States.

The attack by South Carolina police left Woodard completely and permanently blind. Due to South Carolina's reluctance to pursue the case, President Harry S. Truman ordered a federal investigation. The sheriff was indicted and went to trial in federal court in South Carolina, where he was acquitted by an all-white jury.

Beginning shortly after this in 1946, President Harry S. Truman embarked on several major civil rights initiatives: he established a national interracial commission, made a historic speech to the NAACP and the nation in June 1947 describing civil rights as a moral priority, submitted a civil rights bill to Congress in February 1948, and issued Executive Orders 9981 and 9980 on the same day to desegregate the armed forces and the federal government.

Early life and education[edit]

Isaac Woodard was born in Fairfield County, South Carolina, and grew up in Goldsboro, North Carolina. He attended local segregated schools, often historically underfunded for African Americans during the Jim Crow years.

World War II service[edit]

At age 23, Woodard enlisted in the U.S. Army on October 14, 1942 at Fort Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina. He served in the Pacific Theater in a labor battalion as a longshoreman and was promoted to sergeant.[1] He earned a battle star for his Asiatic-Pacific Theater Campaign Medal by unloading ships under enemy fire in New Guinea, and received the Good Conduct Medal, as well as the Service medal and World War II Victory Medal awarded to all American participants.[2] He received an honorable discharge.

Attack and maiming[edit]

On February 12, 1946, former U.S. Army Sergeant Isaac Woodard Jr. was on a Greyhound Lines bus traveling from Camp Gordon in Augusta, Georgia, where he had been discharged, en route to rejoin his family in North Carolina. When the bus reached a rest stop just outside of Augusta, 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. Woodard returned to his seat from the rest stop without incident, and the bus departed.[2]

The bus stopped in Batesburg (now Batesburg-Leesville, South Carolina), near Aiken. Though Woodard had caused no disruption, 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 number of policemen, including Shull, took Woodard to a nearby alleyway, where they beat him repeatedly with nightsticks. They then took Woodard to the town jail and arrested him for disorderly conduct, accusing him of drinking beer in the back of the bus with other soldiers.

Newspaper accounts vary on what happened next (and accounts sometimes spelled his name as "Woodward"), but author and attorney Michael R. Gardner said in 2003:

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.[3]

During the course of the night in jail, Shull beat and blinded Woodard. Woodard also suffered partial amnesia as a result of his injuries.

In his court testimony, Woodard stated that he was punched in the eyes by police several times on the way to the jail, and later repeatedly jabbed in his eyes with a billy club.[4] Newspaper accounts[5] indicate that Woodard's eyes had been "gouged out"; historical documents indicate that each globe was ruptured irreparably in the socket.[6]

The following morning, the police sent Woodard before the local judge, who found him guilty and fined him fifty dollars. The soldier requested medical assistance, but it took two more days for a doctor to be sent to him. Not knowing where he was and 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, Woodard was discovered in the hospital. He was immediately rushed to a US Army hospital in Spartansburg, South Carolina. Though his memory had begun to recover by that time, doctors found both eyes were damaged beyond repair.

National outcry[edit]

Though the case was not widely reported at first, it was soon covered extensively in major national newspapers. The NAACP worked to publicize Woodard's plight, campaigning for the state government of South Carolina to address the incident, which it dismissed.

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 affidavit sent to him by the NAACP and signed by Woodard. He criticized the lack of action by the South Carolina government as intolerable and shameful.[7][8] Woodard was the focus of Welles's four subsequent broadcasts.[9]:329–331 "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 in a 1988 exhibit on Welles.[10]

Musicians wrote songs about Woodard and the attack. A month after the beating, calypso artist Lord Invader recorded an anti-racism song for his album Calypso at Midnight; it was entitled "God Made Us All", with the last line of the song directly referring to the incident.

Later that year, folk artist Woody Guthrie recorded "The Blinding of Isaac Woodard," which he wrote for his album The Great Dust Storm. He said that 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...."[11]

Federal response[edit]

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."[3] The following day, Truman wrote a letter to Attorney General Tom C. Clark demanding that action be taken to address South Carolina's reluctance to try the case. Six days later, on September 26, Truman directed the United States Department of Justice to open an investigation in the case.

A short investigation followed, and on October 2, Shull and several of his officers were indicted in U.S. District Court in Columbia, South Carolina. It was within federal jurisdiction because the beating had occurred at a bus stop on federal property and at the time Woodard was in uniform of the armed services. 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 later wrote of being disgusted at 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...."[12]

The defense did not perform better. When the defense attorney began to shout racial epithets at Woodard, Waring stopped him immediately. During the trial, the defense attorney stated to the all-white jury that "if you rule against Shull, then let this South Carolina secede again."[13] (Due to disfranchisement of blacks in the South, they were also excluded from juries.) After Woodard gave his account of the events, Shull firmly denied it. He claimed 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, the jury found Shull not guilty on all charges, despite his admission that he had blinded Woodard. The courtroom broke into applause upon hearing the verdict.[12] The failure to gain conviction of Shull was perceived as a political failure by the Truman administration. Shull was never punished, dying in Batesburg, South Carolina on December 27, 1997 at age 95.

Isaac Woodard moved North after the trial and lived in the New York City area for the rest of his life. He died at age 73 in the Veterans Administration Hospital in the Bronx on September 23, 1992. He was buried with military honors at the Calverton National Cemetery (Section 15, Site 2180) in Calverton, New York.

Aftermath[edit]

Influence in American politics[edit]

In December 1946, after meeting with White and other leaders of the NAACP, and a month after the jury acquitted Shull, Truman established the Civil Rights Commission by Executive Order 9808; a 15-member, interracial group, including the President of General Electric, Charles E. Wilson, academics such as John Sloan Dickey from Dartmouth College, and Sadie Tanner Alexander, a black attorney for the city of Philadelphia, as well as other activists. He asked them to report by the end of 1947.[14]

Truman made a strong speech on civil rights on June 29, 1947 to the NAACP, the first American president to speak to their meeting, which was broadcast by radio from where they met on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The President said that civil rights was a moral priority, and it was his priority for the federal government. He had seen by Woodard's and other cases that the issue could not be left to the states and local governments. He said:

It is my deep conviction that we have reached a turning point in our country’s efforts to guarantee freedom and equality to all our citizens. Recent events in the United States and abroad have made us realize that it is more important today than ever before to insure that all Americans enjoy these rights. When I say all Americans—I mean all Americans.[14]

On February 2, 1948, President Truman sent the first comprehensive civil rights bill to Congress.[14] It incorporated many of the 35 recommendations of his commission. In July 1948, over the objection of senior military officers, Truman issued Executive Order 9981, banning racial discrimination in the U.S. Armed Forces, and Executive Order 9980 to integrate the federal government. (Facilities had been segregated under President Woodrow Wilson). This was in response to a number of incidents against black veterans, most notably the Woodard case. The armed forces and federal agencies led the way in United States for integration of the workplace, public facilities and schools. Over the decades, the decision meant that both institutions benefited from the contributions of minorities.

Nevertheless, polls showed opposition to Truman's civil rights efforts. They likely cost him some support in his 1948 reelection bid against Thomas Dewey.[15] Alhough he narrowly won, Michael Gardner believes that his continued championing of civil rights as federal priority cost him much support, especially in the Solid South.[15] White Democrats had long exercised outsize political power in Congress, having disfranchised most blacks there since the turn of the twentieth century, but benefiting by apportionment based on total population. Truman's efforts threatened other changes, since numerous communities across the country had restrictive covenants that were racially discriminatory. Because of his low approval ratings and a bad showing in early primaries, President Truman chose not to seek re-election in 1952, though he could have done so. He had been exempted from the term limitations under the 22nd amendment.

Influence on popular culture[edit]

Orson Welles revisited the Woodard case in the May 7, 1955, broadcast of his BBC TV series, Orson Welles' Sketch Book.[16]:417

Woody Guthrie later recalled, "I sung 'The Blinding of Isaac Woodard' in the Lewisohn Stadium one night for more than 36,000 people, and I got the loudest applause I've ever got in my whole life."[11]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Andrew Myers, Resonant Ripples in a Global Pond: The Blinding of Isaac Woodard, "Honorable Discharge Paperwork", presented at American Humanities Conference, 2002
  2. ^ a b Woodard testimony, November 1947 Part 2
  3. ^ a b View All Archives: UVA NewsMakers
  4. ^ Myers (2002), Blinding Isaac Woodard: Woodard testimony, November 1947 Part 3
  5. ^ Newspaper accounts
  6. ^ Myers (2002), Blinding Isaac Woodard: "Isaac Woodard, Jr.: Medical reports"
  7. ^ Orson Welles Commentaries — "Affidavit of Isaac Woodward", July 28, 1946
  8. ^ "Orson Welles Commentaries". The Paley Center for Media. Retrieved 2014-03-27. 
  9. ^ Leaming, Barbara, Orson Welles, A Biography. New York: Viking, 1985 ISBN 0-670-52895-1
  10. ^ Orson Welles on the Air: The Radio Years. New York: The Museum of Broadcasting, catalog for exhibition: October 28–December 3, 1988, p. 66
  11. ^ a b "The Blinding of Isaac Woodward" (Woody Guthrie; 1946), Fortune City
  12. ^ a b [1], hosted at West Virginia University
  13. ^ The Stan Iverson Memorial Library, Infoshop & Anarchist Archives
  14. ^ a b c "Michael R. Gardner, Author and Attorney, 'Harry Truman and Civil Rights: Moral Courage and Political Risks'", University of Virginia NewsMakers, TV News, 26 September 2003
  15. ^ a b Gardner, Michael. Harry Truman and Civil Rights: Moral Courage and Political Risks, Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois Press, 2002
  16. ^ Welles, Orson, and Peter Bogdanovich, This is Orson Welles. New York: HarperCollins Publishers 1992 ISBN 0-06-016616-9

Further reading[edit]

  • Egerton, John. Speak Now Against the Day, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1994.
  • Gardner, Michael. Harry Truman and Civil Rights: Moral Courage and Political Risks, Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois Press, 2002.
  • Yarborough, Tinsley. A Passion for Justice: J. Waties Waring and Civil Rights, New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

External links[edit]