A 2019 NPR Staff Pick
How the blinding of Sergeant Isaac Woodard changed 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. 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.
Introduction: A Collision of Two Worlds
PART I: THE BLINDING
1. A Tragic Detour
2. A Wave of Terror
3. "The Place was Batesburg"
4. The Bystander Government
PART II: THE AWAKENING
5. "My God . . . We Have Got to Do Something"
6. The Isaac Woodard Road Show
7. The Gradualist
8. A "Baptism in Racial Prejudice"
PART III: THE CALL TO ACTION
9. "I Shall Fight to End Evil Like This"
10. "We Know the Way. We Need Only the Will"
11. Confronting the American Dilemma
12. There Will Be No Fines
13. Fighting the "Battle Royal"
14. Driving the "Last Nail in the Coffin of Segregation"
Conclusion: Unexampled Courage
Appendix: A Forensic Analysis of the Blinding of Isaac Woodard