A 2019 NPR Staff Pick
How the blinding of Sergeant Isaac Woodard changed the course of America’s civil rights history
Richard Gergel’s Unexampled Courage details the impact of the blinding of Sergeant Woodard on the racial awakening of President Truman and Judge Waring, and traces their influential roles in changing the course of America’s civil rights history.
On February 12, 1946, Sergeant Isaac Woodard, a returning, decorated African American veteran, was removed from a Greyhound bus in Batesburg, South Carolina, after he challenged the bus driver’s disrespectful treatment of him. Woodard, in uniform, was arrested by the local police chief, Lynwood Shull, and beaten and blinded while in custody.
President Harry Truman was outraged by the incident. He established the first presidential commission on civil rights and his Justice Department filed criminal charges against Shull. In July 1948, following his commission’s recommendation, Truman ordered an end to segregation in the U.S. armed forces. An all-white South Carolina jury acquitted Shull, but the presiding judge, J. Waties Waring, was conscience-stricken by the failure of the court system to do justice by the soldier. Waring described the trial as his “baptism of fire,” and began issuing major civil rights decisions from his Charleston courtroom, including his 1951 dissent in Briggs v. Elliott declaring public school segregation per se unconstitutional. Three years later, the Supreme Court adopted Waring’s language and reasoning in Brown v. Board of Education.
In this enlightening study, judge and historian Gergel illuminates the far-reaching effects of an individual act of cruelty. Gergel lays out the terrible racial logic that led from decorated WWII veteran Isaac Woodard's innocuous request that the driver of his Greyhound bus allow him a rest stop to him permanently losing his eyesight after South Carolina police chief Lynwood Shull assaulted him with a blackjack in 1946. When NAACP leader Walter White brought Woodard's case to President Truman's attention, the latter, aware that this was far from an isolated instance of racist violence, responded: "We have got to do something." Truman created the first presidential committee on civil rights, whose investigations led, by 1948, to the desegregation of the nation's armed forces, a crucial precedent to the reforms of the next two decades. Meanwhile, in South Carolina, an all-white jury acquitted Shull; this outcome so appalled the presiding judge, Waties Waring, that he became a civil rights crusader in the heart of the former Confederacy. Gergel's prose is workmanlike, and he narrates this story in greater detail than some readers may desire, but this is an important work on the prehistory of the civil rights struggle and an insightful account of how a single incident can inspire massive social and political changes.
Moving book of History
This is a well written story that was hard to put down. True story written as a riveting novel and educated me on a part of post WW2 history I did not know. Inspired me as a lawyer and made me proud of what people can accomplish is they are not concerned about the consequences, but rather, strive to do what is right, moral, and according to the law. Highly recommend