Home > Uncategorized > Isaac Woodard’s story should be widely known – posted 9/26/2021

Isaac Woodard’s story should be widely known – posted 9/26/2021

American history, as conventionally taught, includes a number of agreed-upon stories. What seems to get remembered is much less than the full tapestry of our history. There are some stories which have been left out but which have considerable historical importance.

The story of Isaac Woodard is such a story. I did not know about him until I read Isabel Wilkerson’s book, Caste. Woodard became unknown after the 1940’s even though his story is critical to the evolution of the modern civil rights movement. No less a person than Julian Bond, Georgia’s late outstanding civil rights leader, said that Woodard’s story inspired a generation of African Americans to act.

The story begins with Woodard’s honorable discharge from the U.S. Army. After serving for three years in the Pacific theater in World War II, Woodard returned to the United States. During his time in the military he was promoted to sergeant. He earned a battle star for unloading ships under enemy fire during the New Guinea campaign. Woodard was one of one million African Americans who all served in segregated units in the U.S. military.

On February 12, 1946, Woodard boarded a Greyhound bus in Augusta Ga as he headed home to see his wife. During an early stop Woodard asked the bus driver if he could step off the bus to go to the bathroom. In that time, buses did not have restroom facilities. The bus driver said:

“Hell no. Goddamn it, go back and sit down. I ain’t got time to wait.”

Woodard responded:

“God damn it, talk to me like I am talking to you. I am a man just like you.”

The bus driver then agreed to a brief rest stop. When the bus reached Batesburg, South Carolina, the bus driver exited the bus to find a police officer to have Woodard removed from the bus.

The bus driver found Batesburg’s police chief, Lynwood Shull, along with a second officer. When the bus driver returned to the bus, he told Woodard to get off the bus as he had someone who wanted to speak to him. While accounts vary somewhat about what happened next, the police chief struck Woodard over the head with a blackjack. He then placed Woodard under arrest.

The police chief hit Woodard again and Woodard tried to wrestle away the blackjack. He stopped when the other officer pulled a gun. The police chief then proceeded to repeatedly pound Woodard in the eyes and face with the end of his blackjack. Woodard blacked out.

When Woodard woke up the next morning, he could not see. Police Chief Shull had crushed Woodard’s eyes and permanently blinded him. Doctors later diagnosed that Woodard had suffered traumatic ruptures of both globes.

The next morning Shull guided Woodard to court. In a kangaroo court proceeding, Woodard was promptly found guilty of disorderly conduct and fined $50. He had $44 in cash and the judge accepted payment of that and suspended the balance.

A local doctor recommended that Woodard be transported to the VA Hospital in Columbia South Carolina. An internist there observed hemorrhaging of the eyeballs. Woodard remained at the VA Hospital for the next two months.

VA staff applied for VA disability benefits on his behalf but there was a problem. Woodard’s blinding happened five hours after his discharge. Even though he was still in uniform on the way home, the VA denied Woodard full benefits. He was given partial disability benefits of $50 per month which was a personal disaster for Woodard because that was not financially survivable.

It took fifteen years before Congress amended the law to allow full service-related disability for a soldier who suffered a disabling injury while traveling home after discharge from the military.

After he was blinded, Woodard’s wife dumped him. His parents and sisters who had moved north during the war came to the rescue. His sisters brought him back to New York City to live. Woodard complained to his mother, “My head feels like it’s going to burst and my eyes ache.” The situation was close to hopeless.

But then the NAACP took his case and things changed. The NAACP began a major public relations campaign around Woodard’s blinding that was extremely effective. At the same time there was a wave of violence carried out in the South against returning African American veterans. Woodard’s story captured in microcosm the broader trend.

Orson Welles’ very popular radio program focused on the Woodard case. Joe Louis, the heavyweight champion organized a benefit concert in Harlem that featured Cab Calloway and Nat King Cole. Woody Guthrie wrote an original song about Woodard and sang it at the benefit. The concert was very successful and raised money to help Woodard who was impoverished.

The federal government had been a passive bystander (and worse) to the prevailing racism of the 1940’s. Although J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI had a dismal record on civil rights, even Hoover thought Woodard’s case was flagrant. President Truman and Attorney General Tom Clark faced pressure to act.

At the time the federal government had almost entirely defaulted on prosecuting crimes of racial hate but the Justice Department filed suit against Shull. Not surprisingly, an all-white jury quickly acquitted him. That was the norm. The Charleston South Carolina federal court judge in the case, Judge J. Waties Waring was horrified both by a weak prosecution and by the racist verdict.

Sometimes disgraceful crimes that remain unpunished can lead to entirely unexpected outcomes. Both President Truman and Judge Waring were shocked by the Woodard events. Truman issued an executive order establishing the President’s Committee on Civil Rights. The Committee issued a report in October 1947 entitled “To Secure These Rights”. The report challenged Jim Crow and made many progressive proposals, including desegregating the armed forces and federal government employment.

While Truman was no civil rights firebrand, in July 1948 he issued another executive order ending segregation in the armed forces. Before his presidency ended in 1951 he issued a series of executive orders prohibiting discrimination by federal contractors in a number of federal agencies like the Department of Defense, Commerce and the Interior. It must be remembered that this was a time when there was overwhelming hostility to civil rights among American voters.

Judge Waring went through a process of personal transformation and racial awakening. The Woodard case opened his eyes. It did not take long for Judge Waring to be receiving death threats from the racists and segregationists. Waring ruled against South Carolina in a white primary case. South Carolina had been excluding qualified voters from its primaries based on race.

As part of a three judge panel, Judge Waring later issued a powerful dissent in Briggs v Elliott, a forerunner case to Brown v Board of Education. He found that “segregation is per se inequality”. Waring’s analysis reappeared in the Brown opinion.

Probably most people think the civil rights movement began in the 1950’s. In his book Unexampled Courage, Richard Gergel shows the movement’s 1940’s roots. A strong argument can be made that the Woodard case and its aftermath kickstarted the movement.

Once upon a time, Isaac Woodard’s name was one of the most recognizable names within the Black community in America. But that was over 70 years ago. His name has been long buried and forgotten just like much of our racial history. Woodard’s story should be acknowledged as an integral part of American history.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Pat Dawson
    September 30, 2021 at 10:08 pm

    Thank you for teaching me some history. Very interesting!

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