’The Blinding of Isaac Woodard’: Black World Struggle II veteran fueled civil rights motion

The driver reluctantly stopped 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 and told the driver not to speak to him like that.

“I’m a man like you,” said Woodard.

In the next town, Batesburg, SC, the driver called the police. The Batesburg police chief pulled Woodard off the bus and immediately started beating him, putting a blackjack in each of Woodard’s eye sockets and blinding him.

Woodard was sent to jail where he later stated that someone had poured whiskey on him to say he was drunk. He passed the night in excruciating pain. The next morning, he was taken to court and asked to sign papers that he could neither see nor 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 examines the story of Woodard’s life and how the beating fueled the civil rights movement and changed the course of US history.

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

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

Two months after going blind, Woodard traveled to New York City, where he met Walter White, the executive secretary of the NAACP. The NAACP legal team, led by Thurgood Marshall, had searched for civil rights cases that could help dramatize the effects of Jim Crow laws, lynchings, white supremacy, police brutality and racial violence against blacks.

Hundreds of black veterans had been attacked and an unknown number were lynched. The NAACP offices were filled with harrowing reports of lynched black veterans. A black veteran was murdered for voting in an elementary school.

In July 1946, four black people, including George W. Dorsey, a respected veteran who served in the Pacific and North Africa during World War II, were beaten, tortured, fatally shot and hanged on the Ford Bridge at Moore in Walton County, Ga ., in the so-called last mass lynching in America.

“So many people did not survive their encounters with police officers,” said Jamila Ephron, the director of the film, in a telephone interview. “Somebody survived here. Isaac Woodard’s face contained the evidence of the crime that was 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 electroplate people,” Ephron said. Woodard toured the country on a lecture tour. A benefit concert with big stars like 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 and spoke in a low voice. The audience of more than 20,000 people fell silent. “I spent three and a half years serving my country and thought I would be treated as a man when I returned to my country,” said Woodard. “But that was a mistake.”

Woodard’s story resonated. More than 900,000 black men fought in World War II. Most of them returned to the south wearing the dignity of having fought for their country in the hope of being treated with respect. Instead, many were attacked just for wearing their uniforms.

“It merged with a moment when black men went out again to fight for human rights, to come home and deny them those rights,” said Ephron. “It reached a turning point among black veterans and black communities that enough was enough.”

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

Welles asked for help with identifying the town where Woodard was beaten and the officer’s name. “Officer X,” Welles announced, “I’ll speak to you. … you will be revealed. “

Within days, the NAACP received a letter from a black soldier saying he was on the bus when Woodard was withdrawn. The letter writer identified the town where the beatings took place as Batesburg, SC

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

On September 19, 1946, White led a delegation of civil rights leaders to a meeting with President Harry S. Truman to urge him to lobby for anti-lynching laws to be passed.

“When White realizes that Truman isn’t going to move forward,” PBS says, “he’ll tell the president, also a veteran, the story of Isaac Woodard. Truman was furious.”

“He was reluctant to take this meeting with civil rights leaders and was ready to wipe them off,” recalled Ephron.

When Truman heard of the police attack on Woodard, a veteran, he exclaimed, ‘My God! I didn’t know it was that bad. We have to do something, ”said Ephron.

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

A month later, on November 5, 1946, Shull’s trial began in Columbia, SC. The trial was led by Judge J. Waties Waring, son of a Confederate soldier.

During the trial, Woodard testified that he was pulled off the interstate bus on the night of February 13, 1946 in Batesburg, SC

“Shull was waiting for him by the bus door, he said, and hit him before he could say anything,” a United Press news article read in 1946. “Two war veterans – a Negro and a White – met on the same day how Woodard was released in Augusta and rode with him on the bus, testified that the negro was not drunk and had not caused any disturbance. “

The all-white jury deliberated just 15 minutes before Shull was acquitted.

“Judge Waring and his wife are appalled by the judiciary’s obvious wrong decision,” said PBS. “Waring will devote the rest of his career to fighting racism. The warings become the target of threats and violence. “

One month after the trial was over, on December 5, 1946, Truman signed an executive order establishing the President’s Civil Rights Committee. On June 28, 1947, Truman accepted an invitation from Walter White of the NAACP to address the organization’s annual meeting.

“There is no legitimate ground for discrimination based on race, religion, race or color,” Truman said in his speech at the Lincoln Memorial. “We can no longer wait for the will to act to grow in the slowest state or in the most backward community. Our national government must lead the way. “

A month later, on July 26, 1946, Truman signed Executive Orders 9980 and 9981, which racially integrated the US military and federal government workforce.

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