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How the Blinding of Sergeant Isaac Woodard Changed the Course of America’s Civil Rights History

The Detroit tribune, November 23, 1946: a notice that Isaac Woodard would be speaking at an NAACP event.
Library of Congress, from Central Michigan University, Clark Historical Library
The Detroit tribune, November 23, 1946: a notice that Isaac Woodard will speak at an NAACP event.

(Originally broadcast on 03/08/19) - In this week's episode of Walter Edgar's Journal, Richard Gergel details the impact of the 1946 blinding of Sergeant Isaac Woodard on both President Harry S. Truman and Judge J. Waties Waring, and traces their influential roles in changing the course of America's civil rights history.

On February 12 of 1946, Sergeant Isaac Woodard, a returning, decorated African American veteran of World War II, 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 he soon 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.

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Dr. Walter Edgar has two programs on South Carolina Public Radio: Walter Edgar's Journal, and South Carolina from A to Z. Dr. Edgar received his B.A. degree from Davidson College in 1965 and his Ph.D. from the University of South Carolina in 1969. After two years in the army (including a tour of duty in Vietnam), he returned to USC as a post-doctoral fellow of the National Archives, assigned to the Papers of Henry Laurens.