Skip to main content
Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Unexampled Courage

The Blinding of Sgt. Isaac Woodard and the Awakening of President Harry S. Truman and Judge J. Waties Waring

Richard Gergel

Sarah Crichton Books



THE UNITED STATES emerged from World War II in ascendency, having conquered Nazi Germany and imperial Japan. Looking over a war-ravaged world, American leaders sought to remake foreign governments in America’s own image, as democracies committed to individual liberty and human rights. But beneath the veneer of America’s grand self-image was a stark reality: African Americans residing in the old Confederacy lived in a twilight world between slavery and freedom. They no longer had masters, but they did not enjoy the rights of a free people. Black southerners were routinely denied the right to vote, segregated physically from the dominant white society as a matter of law, and relegated to the margins of American prosperity.

African Americans living in other regions of the country faced their own racial challenges. This gaping chasm between the ideal world envisioned by white Americans and the real world experienced by black Americans represented, as the Swedish economist and social scientist Gunnar Myrdal put it, “a moral lag in the development of the nation” and “a problem in the heart of America.”1

Seen from today’s perspective, the American triumph over Jim Crow segregation and disenfranchisement might seem to have been inevitable, the collapse of morally indefensible practices wholly inconsistent with the U.S. Constitution. But in 1945, with southern state governments resolutely committed to the racial status quo and the federal government largely a passive bystander, there was no obvious path to resolving this great American dilemma. Something had to be done, but what, and by whom?

On February 12, 1946, Sergeant Isaac Woodard, a decorated African American soldier, was beaten and blinded in Batesburg, South Carolina, by the town’s police chief on the day of his discharge from the U.S. Army and while still in uniform. The brutality and injustice of Woodard’s treatment encapsulated the angst and outrage of the nation’s 900,000 returning black veterans, who felt their service in defense of American liberty was not appreciated. Soon, protests and mass meetings in response to the Woodard incident were held in black communities across America. Civil rights leaders demanded federal action to hold the police officer accountable for Woodard’s brutal treatment and to protect the rights of the nation’s black citizens from racial violence. Demands for action soon reached the doorstep of the new president, Harry S. Truman, and placed him in the crosswinds of Roosevelt’s disparate New Deal coalition, which included southern segregationists and newly emerging black voters in critical swing states outside the South. Although counseled by his staff and political allies to stay away from divisive civil rights issues, Truman responded to the Woodard blinding by directing his excessively cautious Department of Justice to act. Within days, the department charged Lynwood Shull, the police chief of Batesburg, with criminal civil rights violations and began the process of establishing the first presidential committee on civil rights, to address the widespread reports of violence against returning black veterans. Truman’s civil rights committee would, within the year, issue a report recommending a bold civil rights agenda, culminating in Truman’s historic executive order in July 1948 ending segregation in the armed forces of the United States.

The Justice Department’s prosecution of Shull before an all-white jury in the federal district court in Columbia, South Carolina, resulted in the police chief’s quick acquittal. But the jury’s failure to hold the obviously culpable police officer accountable profoundly troubled the presiding judge, J. Waties Waring, and sent him on a personal journey of study and reflection on race and justice in America. Within months following the Shull trial, Waring began issuing landmark civil rights decisions, then unprecedented for a federal district judge in the South. Despite blistering public denunciations, death threats, and attacks on his home, Waring persisted in upholding the rule of law in his Charleston, South Carolina, courtroom, including his 1951 dissent in a school desegregation case, Briggs v. Elliott, in which he declared government-mandated segregation a per se violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Three years later, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court would adopt Waring’s reasoning and language in Brown v. Board of Education, destroying the legal foundation of Jim Crow segregation.

While conducting research for this book, I came across a statement attributed to the legendary civil rights leader Julian Bond in which he asserted that the Isaac Woodard incident ignited the modern civil rights movement. Intrigued, I contacted Bond in September 2014 to hear his explanation of that statement. I shared with him the connection of the Woodard incident to the racial awakening of President Truman and Judge Waring and asked if that was the basis of his statement. Bond explained that while my research tended to confirm his statement, he had meant to express the belief that the tragic circumstances of Woodard’s blinding had inspired a generation of African Americans to action. He then recalled from memory the story of Woodard’s blinding and described a photograph he remembered from his childhood. As Bond described the image, he began to weep openly over the telephone. Composing himself, he apologized for his tears but stated that after all these years “I still weep for this blinded soldier.”2

The power of the Isaac Woodard story moved people of goodwill to act in the postwar era and still had the force to move Julian Bond to tears nearly seventy years later. In the end, Woodard’s blinding would open the eyes of many Americans, black and white. This is a story that deserves to be told, with all its pathos, its brutality, and its redemption of the American system of justice.



AS THE CLOCK struck 7:00 p.m. on August 14, 1945, President Harry S. Truman assembled the White House press corps in the Oval Office. The ebullient president, standing behind his desk, informed the reporters that earlier that afternoon the Japanese government had unconditionally surrendered, bringing an end to World War II. The reporters spontaneously burst into applause and then raced for the door, to share this historic announcement with the rest of the nation. Thousands gathered in Lafayette Square across from the White House to celebrate, and soon there were calls of “We want Truman! We want Truman!” The president came onto the North Portico of the White House to make a few remarks. “This is a great day,” Truman declared, “the day we’ve been waiting for. This is the day for free governments in the world. This is the day that fascism and police government ceases in the world. The great task ahead [is] to restore peace and bring free government to the world.”1

Over the ensuing months, millions of American soldiers returned home. Among them were nearly 900,000 African Americans who believed that their service and sacrifices in the defense of American liberty might provide them with their rightful place in America’s “free government.” While black soldiers had been assigned to segregated units and frequently given the most menial tasks, their wartime service afforded them opportunities for education, leadership, and recognition. Many of those serving in Europe had experienced respectful treatment from local citizens and realized the possibility of living in a world where skin color was not the defining characteristic of one’s life. And many returning black soldiers, regardless of where they had served, were resolved to no longer acquiesce in the indignities of racial segregation and disenfranchisement that had characterized their prewar lives.

However, the stark reality was that three-fourths of the black veterans were coming home to communities in the old Confederacy. This was the world of Jim Crow, where black citizens were relegated to the margins of American democracy and expected to be the bootblacks and mudsills of the nation’s economy.

Beginning in the 1890s, southern state and local governments started adopting a vast number of what came to be known as Jim Crow laws mandating segregation in almost every aspect of civic life. These statutes and ordinances were validated by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld a Louisiana law requiring racially segregated railway cars. In the years following Plessy, laws were adopted requiring racial separation in factories, parks, public transportation, hospitals, restaurants, and even cemeteries. The clear message was that black citizens were not fit to be in the presence of white people except as maids, laborers, and yardmen.

The widespread adoption of these Jim Crow laws followed the election of a new generation of racial demagogues across the South, a generation bent on defeating the old planter class that had long controlled southern politics and promising the complete subjugation of black citizens. Once they were in power, state legislatures under their control moved swiftly to adopt a vast array of laws to prevent African Americans from voting. Black disenfranchisement was accomplished through an endless variety of tricks and devices denying access to the ballot, including “grandfather clauses,” poll taxes, “understanding clauses,” literacy requirements, all-white party primaries, and old-fashioned terror and intimidation. Despite the protection of the Fifteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing that the “right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged … on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1898 decision of Williams v. Mississippi upheld various Mississippi state constitutional provisions that effectively disenfranchised all black voters in the state.2

Copyright © 2019 by Richard Gergel