The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The lasting legacy of a brutal racial beating in 1946 South Carolina

Kenneth W. Mack, a historian and a professor of law at Harvard, is the author of “Representing the Race: The Creation of the Civil Rights Lawyer” and co-editor of “The New Black: What Has Changed — and What Has Not — with Race in America.”

In early 1946, many white Americans were jolted out of their complacency about race relations by a horrific instance of police violence against a demobilized black soldier. In February, just hours after his discharge, Sgt. Isaac Woodard Jr. broke Southern racial etiquette aboard a Greyhound bus in South Carolina by getting into a dispute with the driver and then failing to address the local police chief, whom the driver had summoned, as “sir.” The chief, Lynwood Shull, beat the decorated war veteran unconscious with a blackjack, driving the butt end of it into each of Woodard’s eye sockets and permanently blinding him.

Woodard was fined $50, ostensibly for drunk and disorderly conduct, but managed to make it to New York City, where the NAACP publicized his story. Orson Welles featured Woodard’s heart-rending plight on his national radio program. Woody Guthrie composed a song titled “The Blinding of Isaac Woodard.” Civil rights activists used Woodard’s blinding to push President Harry Truman to embark on his unprecedentedly frank speeches and actions in favor of black equality. Nearly seven decades later, civil rights leader Julian Bond would still be moved to tears by his childhood recollections of Woodard’s blinding.

In “Unexampled Courage: The Blinding of Sgt. Isaac Woodard and the Awakening of President Harry S. Truman and Judge J. Waties Waring,” federal judge Richard Gergel presents a deeply researched account of Woodard’s tragic story and weaves it into a larger narrative. Gergel chooses as his core theme racial redemption rather than racial violence — themes that the jurist recently experienced in his own courtroom in another case that shocked the nation. Some readers of his book, however, might draw from it more disturbing conclusions about America’s racial past — as well as its present.

Gergel, a South Carolina native, not surprisingly centers his account on the effect that Woodard’s case had on figures such as Truman and J. Waties Waring, the blueblood Southerner and federal judge who presided over the unsuccessful federal civil rights prosecution of Shull for beating Woodard. Waring experienced an epiphany in the 1940s. He scandalized his Charleston friends by divorcing his wife; marrying a Northerner; issuing a series of anti-segregationist decisions and opinions involving peonage, voting rights and school desegregation, including in the South Carolina case that would become part of the Brown v. Board of Education decision; and publicly speaking out for racial equality. Waring dissented from the initial court decision to uphold the state’s school segregation policy, praising the black plaintiffs for their “unexampled courage” in bringing the lawsuit.

Because of their outspoken views, Waring and his wife, Elizabeth, were hounded out of South Carolina and took up residence in New York, where they became friends with influential civil rights leaders, including the NAACP’s chief lawyer, Thurgood Marshall, and its head, Walter White. Waring’s evolution and his role in the Brown litigation are well known to scholars, but Gergel’s deeply sympathetic account of Waring’s changing views, and the couple’s courage in the face of death threats and ostracism, is notable for placing the Warings in the context of larger changes in civil rights politics at mid-century — changes that they could claim some role in ushering along.

“Unexampled Courage” also serves as the definitive account of Woodard’s blinding and Shull’s prosecution. Gergel delivers some stern judgments about the competence of the federal prosecutors who brought an “ill-prepared” case against Shull. He criticizes the Justice Department’s civil rights section, praised in some accounts for its prosecutions of peonage cases in the 1940s, for mostly bringing cases that “tended to stir little public controversy,” concluding that it “never performed effectively” in its core work during that era. NAACP lawyer Franklin Williams attended Shull’s trial and was appalled at the federal prosecutors’ incompetence in failing to muster basic evidence that would support a conviction.

Gergel mobilizes that evidence himself, meticulously demonstrating that Shull’s defense — that he never targeted Woodard’s eyes — was a lie. He also chronicles Woodard’s struggle, after the failed prosecution, to maintain his dignity. A national speaking tour raised funds for the blind veteran’s support, but his case quickly faded from public consciousness. He spent years negotiating with the Veterans Administration over his pension, because he had become disabled after (if only hours after) his discharge from the Army. He brought an unsuccessful suit against the Greyhound company for his injuries, eventually purchased a home and raised a family, and passed away in 1992, unaware of the effect that his case had on figures such as Waring and Truman and on the Brown litigation. Nonetheless, “Woodard’s blinding would open the eyes of many Americans,” Gergel concludes. “Unexampled Courage” is a story of the “redemption of the American system of justice” through the efforts of figures such as Waring, Truman and Marshall.

Redemption, however, is not the only possible theme to draw from the police violence case that so disturbed Americans at mid-century. Woodard’s blinding may have been unexpected and extreme, but the type of violence he encountered was routine. White Southerners reacted to the return of uniformed black veterans from the war with a campaign of murder and brutality — a story that “Unexampled Courage” documents in depth.

The narrative would continue long after the Warings left South Carolina, as state authorities inspired violent resistance to the emerging civil rights movement, most famously manifesting in the Orangeburg massacre of 1968, when state highway patrolmen shot 27 people at the historically black South Carolina State University following civil rights demonstrations, killing three. A federal prosecution of nine of the patrolmen ended in acquittals. Recent events have prompted more public attention to the persistence of racial violence by both public and private actors, most prominently the massacre of nine African Americans at Charleston’s historic Emanuel AME Church by Dylann Roof, a self-professed white supremacist.

Gergel knows this history intimately, for he presided over Roof’s federal trial and conviction, and sentenced him to death. American race relations have changed markedly since Woodard’s tragic case, and that case, as Gergel convincingly argues, played some role in producing the change. As a sitting judge, the author might be expected to emphasize the role of law in redeeming the United States from a legacy of racism and violence. Whether that is the final chapter of this story, however, remains to be seen.

By Richard Gergel

Sarah Crichton/Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 324 pp. $27