By Jueseppi B.
Heavyweight champion Joe Louis (left) and Neil Scott guide Isaac Woodard Jr. up the stairs at Hotel Theresa in 1946.
Isaac Woodard, Jr., often written Isaac Woodward, (March 18, 1919 – September 23, 1992) was an African American World War II veteran whose 1946 beating and maiming, hours after being discharged from the United States Army, sparked national outrage and galvanized the civil rights movement in the United States.
Still in uniform, Woodard was left completely and permanently blind after a run-in with police. The sheriff involved claimed that he had struck Woodard only once in self-defense, although Woodard claimed otherwise, and suffered a ruptured cornea and complete blindness in both eyes. South Carolina‘s reluctance to bring the sheriff to trial prompted federal involvement.
|Isaac Woodard, Jr.|
|Born||March 18, 1919
Fairfield County, South Carolina
|Died||September 23, 1992(aged 73)
Bronx, New York
|Resting Place||Calverton National Cemetery
Calverton, New York
|Allegiance||United States of America|
|Service/branch||United States Army|
|Years of service||1942 – 1946|
|Battles/wars||World War II|
|Awards||Good Conduct Medal American|
“They beat me about the head & face & left a bloody trail
All down along the sidewalk to the iron door of the jail;
He knocked me down upon the ground & he poked me in the eyes;
When I woke up next morning, I found my eyes were blind.
They drug me to the courtroom, & I could not see the judge;
He fined me fifty dollars for raising all the fuss;
The doctor finally got there but it took him two whole days;
He handed me some drops & salve & told me to treat myself.
It’s now you’ve heard my story, there’s one thing I can’t see,
How you could treat a human like they have treated me;
I thought I fought on the islands to get rid of their kind;
But I can see the fight lots plainer now that I am blind.”
— Woody Guthrie,
THE BLINDING OF ISAAC WOODARD
(WOODY GUTHRIE/tune: “THE GREAT DUST STORM”) (Aug 16, 1946)
The Blinding of Isaac Woodard (Woody Guthrie)
Uploaded on Jan 9, 2009
Isaac Woodard (1919-1992) was an African-American veteran of WW2 who was beaten and maimed only hours after being discharged from the US army. Still in uniform, he was left permanently blind after suffering from a ruptured cornea during an encounter with the South Carolina police on February 14, 1946. The sheriff involved claimed he had struck Woodard only once in self-defense, very different from Woodard’s story. The case was not widely reported immediately but it soon became a major issue, with extensive newspaper coverage, when the NAACP campaigned for the South Carolina state government to take action, which they had been reluctant to do. One significant campaigner was film-maker Orson Welles whose radio broadcast about the incident can be heard on YouTube.
A month after the beating, calypso artist, Lord Invader, referred to the incident in an anti-racism song he recorded called “God Made Us All”. Later that year, Woody Guthrie wrote and recorded this song, saying he wrote it “so’s you wouldn’t be forgetting what happened to this famous Negro soldier less than three hours after he got his Honorable Discharge down in Atlanta.” He also said, “I sung this Isaac Woodard song in the Lewisohn Stadium one night for more than 36,000 people, and I got the loudest applause I’ve ever got in my whole life. This song is a long song, but most of the action is told in Isaac’s own words. I made this ballad up because we’ll need lots of songs like this one before we win our fight for racial equality in our big free United States.”
The fight is not over yet, but the US has certainly come a long way since that time.
Lord Invader- God Made Us All
Uploaded on Dec 24, 2010
Lord Invader performs Lord Pretender’s 1943 composition “God Made Us All”
Band: Lord Invader, unknown clarinet, banjo accompaniment by Pete Seeger
Recording: Union Hootenanny, New York City, 9 May 1946
Source: Lord Invader, Calypso in New York (Smithsonian Folkways)
In 1946, Isaac Woodard Jr. — a 27-year-old Army sergeant decorated for courage under fire during service in the Pacific — had been honorably discharged only hours before from Camp Gordon in Augusta, Ga. He was on his way home to North Carolina in uniform on a Greyhound bus when it came to a stop, and he asked the driver if there was time for him to use the restroom.
“He told me the busdriver cursed him and said ‘no,’” Woodard’s nephew and caregiver Robert Young, 74, told the Daily News Tuesday. “He cursed the driver back. My uncle didn’t take nonsense from anybody. At the next stop (in Batesburg, S.C.), the driver called the cops and they pulled him off the bus. They beat him across the head and face with their nightsticks, they smashed the sticks into his eyes. They threw him in a jail cell and came back and poured liquor on him.
“When he woke up, he was blind. . .My mother had to go down and bring him up to the Bronx.”
Woodard, born in Fairfield County, South Carolina, grew up in Goldsboro, North Carolina. He enlisted in the United States Army on October 14, 1942 at Fort Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina and served in the Pacific Theater in a labor battallion as a longshoreman. He earned a battle star, for unloading ships under fire in New Guinea, and a Good Conduct Medal, in addition to the Service medal and World War II Victory Medal awarded to all American participants in the conflict. He received an honorable discharge.
Some details of the incident remain unclear, with contemporary newspaper reports conflicting on some points. Newspapers also frequently misstated Woodard’s surname as “Woodward”. Woodard himself suffered partial amnesia from the trauma, in addition to his blindness.
On February 12, 1946, U.S. Army Sergeant Isaac Woodard Jr. was on a Greyhound Lines bus traveling from Camp Gordon in Augusta, Georgia, where he was “mustered out” en route to his family in North Carolina. The bus came to a stop just outside of Augusta, and Woodard asked the bus driver if there was time for him to use a restroom. The driver grudgingly acceded to the request after an argument with Woodard. Once the stop was completed, Woodard returned to his seat without incident, and the bus departed.
The bus then stopped in Batesburg (now Batesburg-Leesville, South Carolina). Though Woodard did not protest, the driver contacted the local police (including Chief of Police Linwood Shull), who forcibly removed Woodard from the bus. After demanding to see his discharge papers, a group of police officers, including Shull, took him to a nearby alleyway, where they proceeded to beat him repeatedly with night sticks. Woodard was then taken to the town jail and arrested for disorderly conduct, accused of drinking beer in the back of the bus with other soldiers.
While newspaper accounts of what transpired next vary, attorney and author Michael R. Gardner wrote, “In none of the papers is there any suggestion there was verbal or physical violence on the part of Sergeant Woodard. It’s quite unclear what really happened. What did happen with certainty is the next morning when the sun came up, Sergeant Isaac Woodard was blind for life.” During the course of the night in jail, Shull blinded Woodard. Woodard also suffered partial amnesia as a result of the injuries.
In his court testimony, Woodard stated that he was punched in the eyes several times on the way to the jail, and later repeatedly jabbed in his eyes with a Billy club. Despite newspaper accounts indicating that Woodard’s eyes had been “gouged out”, historical documents indicate that each globe was ruptured irreparably in the socket.
The following morning, the police sent him before the local judge, who promptly found him guilty and fined him fifty dollars. He requested medical assistance, but it took two days for a doctor to be sent to him. Not knowing where he was and still suffering from amnesia, Woodard ended up in a hospital in Aiken, South Carolina, receiving substandard medical care.
Three weeks after he was reported missing by his relatives, he was discovered in the hospital. Woodard was immediately rushed to an Army hospital in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Though his memory had begun to recover by that time, doctors found both eyes were damaged beyond repair.
Though the case was not widely reported in the immediate aftermath of the attack, it was soon reported extensively in major newspapers around the nation. The NAACP worked to publicize Woodard’s plight, campaigning for the state government of South Carolina to address the issue, which it frequently dismissed.
Woodard’s story also emerged in popular culture. Via his radio show, broadcaster and filmmaker Orson Welles crusaded for the punishment of Shull and his accomplices. Welles, a follower of the civil rights movement, criticized the reaction of the South Carolina government as intolerable and shameful.
The story emerged in music as well. A month after the beating, calypso artist Lord Invader recorded an anti-racism song for his album Calypso at Midnight entitled “God Made Us All”, with the last line of the song directly referencing the incident.
Later that year, folk artist Woody Guthrie would record a song for his album The Great Dust Storm entitled “The Blinding of Isaac Woodard“, saying he wrote the song “…so’s you wouldn’t be forgetting what happened to this famous Negro soldier less than three hours after he got his Honorable Discharge down in Atlanta….”
On September 19, 1946, seven months after the incident, NAACP Executive Secretary Walter Francis White met with President Harry S Trumanin the Oval Office to discuss the Woodard case. Gardner writes that when Truman “heard this story in the context of the state authorities of South Carolina doing nothing for seven months, he exploded.” The following day, Truman wrote a letter to Attorney General Tom C. Clarkdemanding that action be taken to address South Carolina’s apparent reluctance to try the case. Six days later, on September 26, Truman directed the United States Department of Justice to open an investigation on the case.
A short investigation ensued, and on October 2, Shull and several of his officers were indicted in U.S. District Court in Columbia, South Carolina. The case was brought to the federal level on the grounds that the beating had occurred at a bus stop on federal property, and that at the time of the assault, Woodard was in uniform. The case was presided over by Judge Julius Waties Waring.
By all accounts, the trial was a travesty. The local U.S. Attorney charged with handling the case failed to interview anyone except the bus driver, a decision that Waring, a civil rights proponent, believed was a gross dereliction of duty. Waring would later write of his disgust of the way the case was handled at the local level, commenting, “I was shocked by the hypocrisy of my government…in submitting that disgraceful case….”
The behavior of the defense was no better. When the defense attorney began to shout racial epithets at Woodard, Waring had it stopped immediately. During the trial, the defense attorney also stated to the jury that “if you rule against Shull, then let this South Carolina secede again.” After Woodard gave his account of the events, Shull firmly denied it, claiming that Woodard had threatened him with a gun, and that Shull had used his nightclub to defend himself. During this testimony, Shull admitted that he repeatedly struck Woodard in the eyes.
On November 5, after thirty minutes of deliberation, Shull was found not guilty on all charges despite his admission that he had blinded Woodard. The courtroom broke into applause upon hearing the verdict. The failure to convict Shull was perceived as a political failure on the part of the Truman administration. Shull died in Batesburg, South Carolina on December 27, 1997 at the age of 95.
Isaac Woodard moved North after the incident and lived in the greater New York City metropolitan area for the rest of his life. He died in the Veterans Administration Hospital in the Bronx on September 23, 1992 at the age of 73, and was buried with military honors at the Calverton National Cemetery in Calverton, New York (Section 15, Site 2180).
Impact on American politics
In July 1948, over the objection of senior military officers, Truman promulgated Executive Order 9981, banning racial discrimination in the U.S. Armed Forces. This was done as a response to a number of incidents against black veterans, most notably the Woodard case.
Perhaps owing to his involvement in the Woodard case and his civil rights activism, Truman lost some support in his 1948 reelection bid againstThomas Dewey. Though he narrowly won, his continued championing of civil rights, a cause contrary to public opinion of the time, cost him greatly. Due to low approval ratings and a bad showing in early primaries, Truman quit a re-election bid in 1952, even though he was exempt from limitations under the 22nd amendment.
Impact on popular culture
On the July 28, 1946, broadcast of his ABC radio series Orson Welles Commentaries, Orson Welles read an affidavit sent to him by the NAACP, signed by Woodard. Welles promised to root out the officer responsible, and made the case a major focus of his weekly show. On September 28, 1946, Welles fulminated against the then-unnamed lawman who blinded Woodard as “Officer X”:
What does it cost to be a Negro? In Aiken, South Carolina it cost a man his eyes. What does it cost to wear over your skeleton the pinkish tint officially described as white? In Aiken, South Carolina it cost a man his soul… Your eyes, Officer X, your eyes, remember, were not gouged away, only the lids are closed. You might raise the lids, you might just try the wild adventure of looking, you might see something. It might be a simple truth, one of those truths held to be self-evident by our founding fathers and by most of us. If we should ever find you bravely blinking at the sun, we will know then that the world is young after all, that chaos is behind us and not ahead. Then there will be shouting of trumpets to rouse the dead at Gettysburg, a thunder of cannon will declare the tidings of peace, and all the bells of liberty will laugh out loud in the streets to celebrate goodwill towards all men.
Welles also gave an account of the Woodard case on the May 7, 1955, broadcast of his BBC TV series Orson Welles’ Sketch Book. He commented, “I’m willing to admit that the policeman has a difficult job, a very hard job. But it’s the essence of our society that a policeman’s job should be hard. He’s there to protect the free citizen, not to chase criminals — that’s an incidental part of the job.”
The events and outcome of the Woodard case partially inspired Welles’ 1958 film, Touch of Evil.
Woody Guthrie later recalled, “I sung ‘The Blinding of Isaac Woodard‘ in the Lewisohn Stadium one night for more than 36,000 people, and I got the loudest applause I’ve ever got in my whole life.”
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