Isaac Woodard Jr. Blinded By White Cops In North Carolina In 1946…

On Feb. 12, 1946, Sergeant Isaac Woodard, 26, had just returned to the U.S. from fight­ing abroad in World War II and was on a Greyhound bus en route to his home in Winnsboro, S.C., when he asked the bus dri­ver if he could pull into a rest stop for a bath­room break. The dri­ver refused, and the two got into a ver­bal argu­ment. At the next stop in Batesburg, S.C., the dri­ver ordered Woodard off the bus, and police offi­cers, includ­ing Batesburg police chief Lynwood Shull, took Woodard into custody.

The exclu­sive clip above fea­tures Woodard’s drama­ti­za­tion describ­ing how he was blind­ed on April 23, 1946, affidavit.
The police­man asked me, ‘was I dis­charged?’ When I said, ‘yes,’ that’s when he start­ed beat­ing me with a bil­ly near across the top of my head. After that, I grabbed his bil­ly, wrung it out of his hand. Another police­man came up and threw his gun on me, told me to drop the bil­ly, or he’d drop me, so I dropped the bil­ly. He knocked me uncon­scious. He hollered, get up. When I start­ed to get up, he start­ed punch­ing me in the eyes with the end of his billy.

Orson Welles, at the time a promi­nent radio announc­er, pub­li­cized the inci­dent, rais­ing aware­ness among white Americans. The NAACP helped Woodard embark on a speak­ing tour to help peo­ple see the real­i­ties of police bru­tal­i­ty up-close. In August 1946, enter­tain­ers Billie Holiday and Woody Guthrie and box­er Joe Louis head­lined a ben­e­fit con­cert at Harlem’s now-defunct Lewisohn Stadium to raise mon­ey for Woodard and his fam­i­ly. The event drew a crowd of 20,000 and raised $10,000 for Woodard and his fam­i­ly (about $132,835 in Feb. 2021).

Isaac Woodard - Wikipedia

I spent three-and-a-half years in the ser­vice of my coun­try and thought that I would be treat­ed like a man when I returned to civil­ian life, but I was mis­tak­en,” Woodard told the audi­ence. “If the loss of my sight will make peo­ple in America get togeth­er to pre­vent what hap­pened to me from ever hap­pen­ing again to any oth­er per­son, I would be glad.”

In November 1946, in a tri­al over whether exces­sive or unnec­es­sary force was used on Woodard, Batesburg police chief Shull claimed he only hit Woodard once. An all-white jury acquit­ted Shull after delib­er­at­ing for 30 minutes.

However, the fed­er­al judge who presided over the case, Julius Waties Waring, didn’t think the out­come was fair. The case was a polit­i­cal awak­en­ing for him, accord­ing to Richard Gergel, a South Carolina fed­er­al judge who start­ed research­ing Woodard’s case a decade ago and who brought atten­tion to how it influ­enced future land­mark civ­il rights cas­es in his 2019 book Unexampled Courage: The Blinding of Sgt. Isaac Woodard and the Awakening of President Harry S. Truman and Judge J. Waties Waring. Waring described the case as a “bap­tism by fire” that led him to issue opin­ions in favor of civ­il rights cas­es for years afterward.

For exam­ple, Waring’s dis­sent­ing opin­ion in Briggs v. Elliott (1952) — in which 20 Black par­ents in Clarendon County, S.C., sued for equal edu­ca­tion for their chil­dren — argued school seg­re­ga­tion was uncon­sti­tu­tion­al per the Fourteenth Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court came to the same con­clu­sion in Brown v. Board of Education, which cleared up five school seg­re­ga­tion cas­es, includ­ing Briggs after Waring encour­aged NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund lawyer and future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall to appeal the deci­sion as a direct attack on segregation.

Woodard’s blind­ing was also a polit­i­cal awak­en­ing for future civ­il rights lead­ers. Student Nonviolent Coördinating Committee co-founder Julian Bond’s ear­li­est mem­o­ry of racial vio­lence saw news­pa­per pho­tographs of Woodard with ban­dages over his eyes at the age of six, pho­tographs he would remem­ber for “as long as I live,” per his 2021 posthu­mous­ly-pub­lished col­lec­tion of lec­tures, Time to Teach: A History of the Southern Civil Rights Movement.

Crucially, Woodard’s blind­ing spurred President Harry S. Truman to take action. NAACP leader Walter White recalled in his mem­oir that when he told Truman about Woodard’s blind­ing, Truman stood up and exclaimed, “My God! I had no idea it was as ter­ri­ble as that! We’ve got to do some­thing!” In Dec. 1946, a month after the acquit­tal of the Batesburg, S.C., police chief, Truman cre­at­ed a pres­i­den­tial com­mis­sion on civ­il rights. In 1948, per its rec­om­men­da­tion, he signed an exec­u­tive order call­ing for the deseg­re­ga­tion of the U.S. mil­i­tary and cre­at­ing the President’s Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services.

The Department of Justice had been some­what timid in doing any­thing about the wide­spread denial of basic rights to African Americans in the South and across the coun­try, but with­in two years of Woodard’s blind­ing, the Department of Justice would begin fil­ing briefs in the United States Supreme Court in seg­re­ga­tion cas­es, argu­ing that this Court should act against seg­re­ga­tion,” says Mack.

As for Woodard, he wouldn’t receive dis­abil­i­ty ben­e­fits from the Army until 1962. To sup­port his fam­i­ly, he bought prop­er­ties in the Bronx, N.Y., and lived there until he died in 1992 at the age of 73. In 2019, a his­tor­i­cal mark­er about Woodard went up in the city where he was blind­ed, now called Batesburg-Leesville.

Woodard stayed out of the spot­light, but the trau­ma of the inci­dent always stayed with him. In a Sep. 16, 1982, inter­view with the pub­lic affairs TV pro­gram Like It Is, Woodard said he was frus­trat­ed that the police offi­cer who blind­ed him kept his job. But he didn’t allow it to lose his faith in human­i­ty. “Everybody ain’t bad,” as he put it.

When the host Gil Noble asked him what he want­ed future gen­er­a­tions to learn about America from what hap­pened to him, Woodard replied, “People should learn how to live with one anoth­er and how to treat one anoth­er. Because after all, we all are human beings, regard­less of color.”

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