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A Black WWII veteran was beaten and blinded, fueling the civil rights movement

A new documentary explores how Isaac Woodard changed America

World War II veteran Isaac Woodard after he was blinded in an assault by police. (Library of Congress)

In February 1946, Sgt. Isaac Woodard, a decorated Black soldier just returning from World War II, rode a Greyhound bus, heading home to South Carolina.

Woodard, who had just been honorably discharged from the Army and was still wearing his uniform, asked the bus driver to stop so that he could use the restroom.

The driver reluctantly pulled over after calling Woodard “boy.”

Woodard, who had just returned from more than three years of military service in the Pacific, stood up for himself and other Black veterans, telling the driver not to talk to him like that.

“I’m a man just like you,” Woodard said.

At the next town, Batesburg, S.C., the driver called the police. The Batesburg police chief pulled Woodard off the bus and immediately began beating him, plunging a blackjack into each of Woodard’s eye sockets and blinding him.

Woodard was taken to jail, where he would later explain that someone poured whiskey on him to say that he had been drunk. He spent the night in excruciating pain. The next morning, he was taken to court and ordered to sign papers that he could not see or read.

A new documentary, “The Blinding of Isaac Woodard,” directed by Jamila Ephron and narrated by André Holland, premiered Tuesday on “American Experience” on PBS. The documentary explores the story of Woodard’s life and how the beating fueled the civil rights movement and changed the trajectory of U.S. history.

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“Based on Richard Gergel’s book ‘Unexampled Courage,’ the film details how the crime led to the racial awakenings of South Carolina Judge J. Waties Waring and President Harry Truman, who desegregated federal offices and the military two years later,” according to PBS.

The documentary uncovers “how a single individual can be the spark that ignites a movement and creates a seismic shift in public opinion,” said Cameo George, the film’s executive producer. “Although his name is little-known today, Isaac Woodard’s story changed hearts and minds — and the law of the land.”

Two months after he was blinded, Woodard traveled to New York City, where he met with Walter White, executive secretary of the NAACP. The NAACP’s legal team, led by Thurgood Marshall, had been looking for civil rights cases that could help dramatize the impact of Jim Crow laws, lynchings, white supremacy, police brutality and racial violence committed against Black people.

Hundreds of Black veterans had been attacked and an unknown number were lynched. The NAACP offices were filled with harrowing reports of Black veterans lynched. One Black veteran had been murdered for casting a vote in a primary.

In July 1946, four Black people, including George W. Dorsey, a distinguished veteran who had served in World War II in the Pacific and North Africa, were beaten, tortured, fatally shot and hanged from the Moore’s Ford bridge in Walton County, Ga., in what is called the last mass lynching in America.

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“So many people did not survive their encounters with police officers,” Jamila Ephron, the film’s director, said in a telephone interview. “Here, someone had survived. Isaac Woodard’s face bore the evidence of the crime committed against him.”

Unlike so many other Black veterans who had been lynched, Woodard lived to tell his story.

The NAACP was “able to use Isaac Woodard to galvanize people,” Ephron said. Woodard traveled the country on a speaking tour. A benefit concert, headlined by huge stars including Billie Holiday, Woody Guthrie and Duke Ellington, was organized to raise money for Woodard. Heavyweight champion Joe Louis co-chaired the concert.

Woodard took the stage, speaking in a low voice. The audience of more than 20,000 people fell silent. “I spent 3½ years in the service of my country and thought I would be treated as a man when I returned to my country,” Woodard said. “But that was a mistake.”

Woodard’s story resonated. More than 900,000 Black men fought in World War II. Most of them returned home to the South carrying themselves with dignity of having fought for their country, hoping they would be treated with respect. Instead, many were attacked, simply for wearing their uniforms.

“It coalesced with a moment when, yet again, Black men had gone off to fight for human rights to come home and have those rights denied them,” Ephron said. “It reached a tipping point amongst Black veterans and Black communities that enough was enough.”

The NAACP asked the actor Orson Welles to use his weekly radio show to highlight the brutal attack on Woodard. Week after week, Welles pounded at the question: Who was the officer who beat and blinded Woodard?

Welles asked for help in identifying the town where Woodard was beaten and the name of the officer. “Officer X,” Welles announced, “I’m talking to you. ... You are going to be uncovered.”

Within days, the NAACP received a letter from a Black soldier who wrote he was on the bus when Woodard was pulled off. The letter writer identified the town where the beating occurred as Batesburg, S.C.

“Officer X,” Welles announced. “We know your name now.”

On Sept. 19, 1946, White led a delegation of civil rights leaders to meet with President Harry S. Truman, to urge him to work to pass anti-lynching legislation.

“When White realizes Truman isn’t going to move forward,” according to PBS, “he tells the president, also a veteran, the story of Isaac Woodard. Truman was enraged.”

“He had taken this meeting with civil rights leaders reluctantly and was prepared to brush them off,” Ephron recalled.

When Truman heard about the police attack on Woodard, a veteran, “He exclaimed, ‘My God! I didn’t know it was this bad. We’ve got to do something,’” Ephron said.

The next day, Truman ordered his attorney general to bring federal charges against Batesburg Police Chief Lynwood L. Shull, who was charged with violating the civil rights of Woodard, by blinding both of his eyes.

A month later, on Nov. 5, 1946, Shull’s trial began in Columbia, S.C. The trial was presided over by Judge J. Waties Waring, the son of a Confederate soldier.

During the trial, Woodard testified that he was pulled off the interstate bus on the night of Feb. 13, 1946, in Batesburg, S.C.

“Shull was waiting for him at the bus door, he said, and struck him before he could say anything,” according to a 1946 United Press news article. “Two war veterans — a Negro and a white — who were discharged at Augusta the same day as Woodard and rode on the bus with him, testified that the Negro was not drunk and had not created a disturbance.”

The all-white jury deliberated only 15 minutes before acquitting Shull.

“Judge Waring and his wife are appalled at the blatant miscarriage of justice,” according to PBS. “Waring will devote the rest of his career to the fight against racism. The Warings become the targets of threats and violence.”

A month after the trial ended, on Dec. 5, 1946, Truman signed an executive order, creating the President’s Committee on Civil Rights. On June 28, 1947, Truman accepted an invitation from the NAACP’s Walter White to speak at the organization’s annual convention.

“There is no justifiable reason for discrimination because of ancestry, or religion, or race, or color,” Truman said in his speech at the Lincoln Memorial. “We cannot any longer await the growth of a will to action in the slowest state or the most backward community. Our national government must show the way.”

A month later, on July 26, 1946, Truman signed Executive Orders 9980 and 9981, racially integrating the U.S. military and the federal government workforce.

Read more Retropolis:

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