Isaac Woodard

Last updated
Isaac Woodard Jr.
Isaac Woodard in 1946
Born(1919-03-18)March 18, 1919
Fairfield County, South Carolina, U.S.
DiedSeptember 23, 1992(1992-09-23) (aged 73)
Bronx, New York City, New York, U.S.
AllegianceFlag of the United States (1912-1959).svg  United States of America
Service/branch Seal of the United States Department of War.png United States Army
Years of service1942–46
Rank US Army WWII SGT.svg Sergeant
Battles/wars New Guinea, World War II
Awards Army Good Conduct ribbon.svg Good Conduct Medal
American Campaign Medal ribbon.svg American Campaign Medal
Asiatic-Pacific Campaign ribbon.svg Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal
World War II Victory Medal ribbon.svg World War II Victory Medal

Isaac Woodard Jr. (March 18, 1919 – September 23, 1992) was a decorated African-American World War II veteran. On February 12, 1946, hours after being honorably discharged from the United States Army, he was attacked while still in uniform by South Carolina police as he was taking a bus home. The attack and his injuries sparked national outrage and galvanized the civil rights movement in the United States.

African Americans are an ethnic group of Americans with total or partial ancestry from any of the black racial groups of Africa. The term typically refers to descendants of enslaved black people who are from the United States.

World War II 1939–1945 global war

World War II, also known as the Second World War, was a global war that lasted from 1939 to 1945. The vast majority of the world's countries—including all the great powers—eventually formed two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis. A state of total war emerged, directly involving more than 100 million people from over 30 countries. The major participants threw their entire economic, industrial, and scientific capabilities behind the war effort, blurring the distinction between civilian and military resources. World War II was the deadliest conflict in human history, marked by 50 to 85 million fatalities, most of whom were civilians in the Soviet Union and China. It included massacres, the genocide of the Holocaust, strategic bombing, premeditated death from starvation and disease, and the only use of nuclear weapons in war.

United States Army Land warfare branch of the United States Armed Forces

The United States Army (USA) is the land warfare service branch of the United States Armed Forces. It is one of the seven uniformed services of the United States, and is designated as the Army of the United States in the United States Constitution. As the oldest and most senior branch of the U.S. military in order of precedence, the modern U.S. Army has its roots in the Continental Army, which was formed to fight the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783)—before the United States of America was established as a country. After the Revolutionary War, the Congress of the Confederation created the United States Army on 3 June 1784 to replace the disbanded Continental Army. The United States Army considers itself descended from the Continental Army, and dates its institutional inception from the origin of that armed force in 1775.


The attack left Woodard completely and permanently blind. Due to South Carolina's reluctance to pursue the case, President Harry S. Truman ordered a federal investigation. The sheriff, Lynwood Shull, was indicted and went to trial in federal court in South Carolina, where he was acquitted by an all-white jury.

Harry S. Truman 33rd president of the United States

Harry S. Truman was the 33rd president of the United States from 1945 to 1953, succeeding upon the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt after serving as vice president. He implemented the Marshall Plan to rebuild the economy of Western Europe, and established the Truman Doctrine and NATO.

An all-white jury is a sworn body composed only of white people convened to render an impartial verdict in a legal proceeding. Juries composed solely of one racial group are not prohibited in the United States. However, the phrases "all-white jury" and "all-black jury"' may raise the expectation that deliberations may be less than fair. While the racial composition of juries is not dictated by law, racial discrimination in the selection of jurors is specifically prohibited. Racial discrimination in jury selection has a long history in the United States.

Such miscarriages of justice by state governments influenced a move towards civil rights initiatives at the federal level. Truman subsequently established a national interracial commission, made a historic speech to the NAACP and the nation in June 1947 in which he described civil rights as a moral priority, submitted a civil rights bill to Congress in February 1948, and issued Executive Orders 9980 and 9981 on June 26, 1948, desegregating the armed forces and the federal government.

NAACP Civil rights organization in the United States

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is a civil rights organization in the United States, formed in 1909 as a bi-racial endeavor to advance justice for African Americans by a group including W. E. B. Du Bois, Mary White Ovington and Moorfield Storey.

Executive Order 9981 1948 order by President Truman to abolish discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion or national origin in the US Armed Forces

Executive Order 9981 is an executive order issued on July 26, 1948, by President Harry S. Truman. It abolished discrimination "on the basis of race, color, religion or national origin" in the United States Armed Forces. The executive order eventually led to the end of segregation in the services.

Early life and military service

Woodard was born in Fairfield County, South Carolina, and grew up in Goldsboro, North Carolina. He attended local segregated schools, often underfunded for African Americans during the Jim Crow years.

Fairfield County, South Carolina County in the United States

Fairfield County is a county located in the U.S. state of South Carolina. As of the 2010 census, its population was 23,956. Its county seat is Winnsboro.

Goldsboro, North Carolina Place in North Carolina, United States

Goldsboro is a city in Wayne County, North Carolina, United States. The population was 36,437 at the 2010 Census. It is the principal city of and is included in the Goldsboro, North Carolina Metropolitan Statistical Area. The nearby town of Waynesboro was founded in 1787 and Goldsboro was incorporated in 1847. It is the county seat of Wayne County. The city is situated in North Carolina's Coastal Plain and is bordered on the south by the Neuse River and the west by the Little River, about 43 miles southwest of Greenville, 55 miles southeast of Raleigh, the state capital, and 87 miles northwest of Wilmington in Southeastern North Carolina. Goldsboro is best known as home to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.

Racial segregation in the United States Historical separation of African Americans from American white society

Racial segregation in the United States, as a general term, refers to the racial segregation of facilities, services, and opportunities such as housing, medical care, education, employment, and transportation in the United States along racial lines. The term mainly refers to the legally or socially enforced separation of African Americans from whites, but is also used in regards to the separation of other ethnic minorities from majority mainstream communities. While mainly referring to the physical separation and provision of separate facilities, it can also refer to other manifestations such as the separation of roles within an institution. Notably, in the United States Armed Forces up until the 1950s, black units were typically separated from white units but were nevertheless still led by white officers.

On October 14, 1942, the 23-year-old Woodard enlisted in the U.S. Army at Fort Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina. He served in the Pacific Theater in a labor battalion as a longshoreman and was promoted to sergeant. [1] He earned a battle star for his Asiatic-Pacific Theater Campaign Medal by unloading ships under enemy fire in New Guinea, and received the Good Conduct Medal as well as the Service medal and World War II Victory Medal awarded to all American participants. [2] He received an honorable discharge.

Fort Jackson (South Carolina) military facility in South Carolina, USA

Fort Jackson is a United States Army installation, which TRADOC operates on for Basic Combat Training (BCT), and is located within the city of Columbia, South Carolina. This installation is named for Andrew Jackson, a United States Army General and seventh President of the United States of America (1829–1837) who was born in the border region of North and South Carolina.

Columbia, South Carolina Capital of South Carolina

Columbia is the capital and second largest city of the U.S. state of South Carolina, with a population estimate of 134,309 as of 2016. The city serves as the county seat of Richland County, and a portion of the city extends into neighboring Lexington County. It is the center of the Columbia metropolitan statistical area, which had a population of 767,598 as of the 2010 United States Census, growing to 832,666 by July 1, 2018, according to 2018 U.S. Census estimates. This makes it the 70th largest metropolitan statistical areas in the nation, as estimated by the United States Census Bureau as of July 1, 2018. The name Columbia is a poetic term used for the United States, originating from the name of Christopher Columbus.

Pacific Ocean theater of World War II

The Pacific Ocean theater, during World War II, was a major theater of the war between the Allies and the Empire of Japan. It was defined by the Allied powers' Pacific Ocean Area command, which included most of the Pacific Ocean and its islands, while mainland Asia was excluded, as were the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies, Borneo, Australia, most of the Territory of New Guinea and the western part of the Solomon Islands.

Attack and maiming

On February 12, 1946, former U.S. Army Sergeant Isaac Woodard Jr. was on a Greyhound Lines bus traveling from Camp Gordon in Augusta, Georgia, where he had been discharged, en route to rejoin his family in North Carolina. When the bus reached a rest stop just outside Augusta, 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. Woodard returned to his seat from the rest stop without incident, and the bus departed. [2]

Greyhound Lines intercity bus company

Greyhound Lines, Inc., usually shortened to Greyhound, is an intercity bus common carrier serving over 3,800 destinations across North America. The company's first route began in Hibbing, Minnesota in 1914, and the company adopted the Greyhound name in 1929. Since October 2007, Greyhound has been a subsidiary of British transportation company FirstGroup, but continues to be based in Dallas, Texas, where it has been headquartered since 1987. Greyhound and its sister companies in FirstGroup America are the largest motorcoach operators in the United States and Canada.

Augusta, Georgia Consolidated city-county in Georgia, United States

Augusta, officially Augusta–Richmond County, is a consolidated city-county on the central eastern border of the U.S. state of Georgia. The city lies across the Savannah River from South Carolina at the head of its navigable portion. Georgia's second-largest city after Atlanta, Augusta is located in the Piedmont section of the state.

North Carolina State of the United States of America

North Carolina is a state located in the southeastern region of the United States. North Carolina is the 28th largest and 9th-most populous of the 50 United States. North Carolina is bordered by Virginia to the north, the Atlantic Ocean to the east, Georgia and South Carolina to the south, and Tennessee to the west. Raleigh is the state's capital and Charlotte is its largest city. The Charlotte metropolitan area, with an estimated population of 2,569,213 in 2018, is the most populous metropolitan area in North Carolina and the 23rd-most populous in the United States and the largest banking center in the nation after New York City. North Carolina's second largest metropolitan area is the Research Triangle, which is home to the largest research park in the United States.

The bus stopped in Batesburg (now Batesburg-Leesville, South Carolina), near Aiken. Though Woodard had caused no disruption, the driver contacted the local police (including Chief of Police Lynwood Shull), who forcibly removed Woodard from the bus. After demanding to see his discharge papers, a number of policemen, including Shull, took Woodard to a nearby alleyway, where they beat him repeatedly with nightsticks. They then took Woodard to the town jail and arrested him for disorderly conduct, accusing him of drinking beer in the back of the bus with other soldiers.

Newspaper accounts vary on what happened next (and accounts sometimes spelled his name as "Woodward"), but author and attorney Michael R. Gardner said in 2003:

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. [3]

During the course of the night in jail, Shull beat and blinded Woodard. Woodard stated in court that he beat him for saying "Yes" instead of "Yes, sir". [4] Woodard also suffered partial amnesia as a result of his injuries.

In his court testimony, Woodard stated that he was punched in the eyes by police several times on the way to the jail, and later repeatedly jabbed in his eyes with a billy club. [5] Newspaper accounts [6] indicate that Woodard's eyes had been "gouged out"; historical documents indicate that each globe was ruptured irreparably in the socket. [7]

The following morning, the police sent Woodard before the local judge, who found him guilty and fined him fifty dollars. The soldier requested medical assistance, but it took two more days for a doctor to be sent to him. Not knowing where he was and 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, Woodard was discovered in the hospital. He was immediately rushed to a US Army hospital in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Though his memory had begun to recover by that time, doctors found both eyes were damaged beyond repair.

National outcry

Though the case was not widely reported at first, it was soon covered extensively in major national newspapers. The NAACP worked to publicize Woodard's plight, campaigning for the state government of South Carolina to address the incident, which it dismissed.

On his ABC radio show Orson Welles Commentaries , actor and filmmaker Orson Welles crusaded for the punishment of Shull and his accomplices. On the broadcast July 28, 1946, Welles read an affidavit sent to him by the NAACP and signed by Woodard. He criticized the lack of action by the South Carolina government as intolerable and shameful. [8] [9] Woodard was the focus of Welles's four subsequent broadcasts. [10] :329–331 "The NAACP felt that these broadcasts did more than anything else to prompt the Justice Department to act on the case," wrote the Museum of Broadcasting in a 1988 exhibit on Welles. [11]

Musicians wrote songs about Woodard and the attack. A month after the beating, calypso artist Lord Invader recorded an anti-racism song for his album Calypso at Midnight; it was entitled "God Made Us All", with the last line of the song directly referring to the incident.

Later that year, folk artist Woody Guthrie recorded "The Blinding of Isaac Woodard," which he wrote for his album The Great Dust Storm. He said that he wrote the song "'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...." [12]

Federal response

On September 19, 1946, seven months after the incident, NAACP Executive Secretary Walter Francis White met with President Harry S. Truman in 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." [3] The following day, Truman wrote a letter to Attorney General Tom C. Clark demanding that action be taken to address South Carolina's reluctance to try the case. Six days later, on September 26, Truman directed the United States Department of Justice to open an investigation in the case.

A short investigation followed, and on October 2, Shull and several of his officers were indicted in U.S. District Court in Columbia, South Carolina. It was within federal jurisdiction because the beating had occurred at a bus stop on federal property and at the time Woodard was in uniform of the armed services. 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 later wrote of being disgusted at the way the case was handled at the local level, commenting, "I was shocked by the hypocrisy of my government submitting that disgraceful case". [13]

The defense did not perform better. When the defense attorney began to shout racial epithets at Woodard, Waring stopped him immediately. During the trial, the defense attorney stated to the all-white jury that "if you rule against Shull, then let this South Carolina secede again." [14] (Due to disfranchisement of blacks in the South, they were also excluded from juries.) After Woodard gave his account of the events, Shull firmly denied it. He claimed 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 (fifteen according to at least one news report [4] ), the jury found Shull not guilty on all charges, despite his admission that he had blinded Woodard. The courtroom broke into applause upon hearing the verdict. [13] The failure to convict Shull was perceived as a political failure by the Truman administration. Shull was never punished, dying in Batesburg, South Carolina on December 27, 1997, at age 95.

Isaac Woodard moved north after the trial during the Second Great Migration and lived in the New York City area for the rest of his life. He died at age 73 in the Veterans Administration Hospital in the Bronx on September 23, 1992. He was buried with military honors at the Calverton National Cemetery (Section 15, Site 2180) in Calverton, New York.


Influence in American politics

In December 1946, after meeting with White and other leaders of the NAACP, and a month after the jury acquitted Shull, Truman established the Civil Rights Commission by Executive Order 9808; a 15-member, interracial group, including the President of General Electric, Charles E. Wilson, academics such as John Sloan Dickey from Dartmouth College, and Sadie Tanner Alexander, a black attorney for the city of Philadelphia, as well as other activists. He asked them to report by the end of 1947. [3]

Truman made a strong speech on civil rights on June 29, 1947, to the NAACP, the first American president to speak to their meeting, which was broadcast by radio from where they met on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The President said that civil rights was a moral priority, and it was his priority for the federal government. He had seen by Woodard's and other cases that the issue could not be left to the states and local governments. He said:

It is my deep conviction that we have reached a turning point in our country's efforts to guarantee freedom and equality to all our citizens. Recent events in the United States and abroad have made us realize that it is more important today than ever before to insure that all Americans enjoy these rights. When I say all Americans—I mean all Americans. [3]

On February 2, 1948, President Truman sent the first comprehensive civil rights bill to Congress. [3] It incorporated many of the 35 recommendations of his commission. In July 1948, over the objection of senior military officers, Truman issued Executive Order 9981, banning racial discrimination in the U.S. Armed Forces, and Executive Order 9980 to integrate the federal government. (Facilities had been segregated under President Woodrow Wilson). This was in response to a number of incidents against black veterans, most notably the Woodard case. The armed forces and federal agencies led the way in United States for integration of the workplace, public facilities and schools. Over the decades, the decision meant that both institutions benefited from the contributions of minorities.

Nevertheless, polls showed opposition to Truman's civil rights efforts. They likely cost him some support in his 1948 reelection bid against Thomas Dewey. [15] Although he narrowly won, Michael Gardner believes that his continued championing of civil rights as a federal priority cost him much support, especially in the Solid South. [15] White Democrats had long exercised outsize political power in Congress, having disfranchised most blacks there since the turn of the twentieth century, but benefiting by apportionment based on total population. Truman's efforts threatened other changes, since numerous communities across the country had restrictive covenants that were racially discriminatory. Because of his low approval ratings and a bad showing in early primaries, President Truman chose not to seek re-election in 1952, though he could have done so. He had been exempted from the term limitations under the 22nd amendment.

Orson Welles revisited the Woodard case in the May 7, 1955, broadcast of his BBC TV series, Orson Welles' Sketch Book . [16] :417

Woody Guthrie later recalled, "I sung 'The Blinding of Isaac Woodard' in the Lewisohn Stadium (in New York City) one night for more than 36,000 people, and I got the loudest applause I've ever got in my whole life." [12]

In January 2019, a new book about the Woodard story and its aftermath, Unexampled Courage: The Blinding of Isaac Woodard and the Awakening of President Harry S. Truman and Judge J. Waties Waring, was published; it was written by Federal Judge Richard Gergel. [17]


Woodard's "drunk and disorderly" conviction (it was alleged that he was drinking on the bus before the incident) was vacated in 2018. [18]

A group led by Don North, a retired Army major from Carrollton, Georgia, received permission from the state of South Carolina to erect a marker regarding Woodard in Batesburg-Leesville. [19] In 2019 a historical marker of the attack was unveiled in Batesburg-Leesville. [18] The bottom part of the marker was written in Braille. [18]

See also

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  1. Andrew Myers, Resonant Ripples in a Global Pond: The Blinding of Isaac Woodard, "Honorable Discharge Paperwork", presented at American Humanities Conference, 2002
  2. 1 2 Woodard testimony, November 1947 Part 2
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 Gardner, Michael R. (September 26, 2003). "Harry Truman and Civil Rights: Moral Courage and Political Risks". University of Virginia NewsMakers, TV News. University of Virginia. Archived from the original on September 17, 2006.
  4. 1 2 "U.S. Police Chief Acquitted of Assault on Negro". The Canberra Times . November 7, 1946. p. 1.
  5. Myers (2002), Blinding Isaac Woodard: Woodard testimony, November 1947 Part 3
  6. Newspaper accounts
  7. Myers (2002), Blinding Isaac Woodard: "Isaac Woodard, Jr.: Medical reports"
  8. Orson Welles Commentaries — "Affidavit of Isaac Woodward", July 28, 1946
  9. "Orson Welles Commentaries". The Paley Center for Media. Retrieved 2014-03-27.
  10. Leaming, Barbara, Orson Welles, A Biography. New York: Viking, 1985 ISBN   0-670-52895-1
  11. Orson Welles on the Air: The Radio Years. New York: The Museum of Broadcasting, catalog for exhibition: October 28–December 3, 1988, p. 66
  12. 1 2 "The Blinding of Isaac Woodward" (Woody Guthrie; 1946) Archived 2005-01-14 at the Wayback Machine , Fortune City
  13. 1 2 Kluger, Richard (2004). Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America's Struggle for Equality (revised and enlarged ed.). New York: Knopf. p. 298. ISBN   9780375414770.
  14. The Stan Iverson Memorial Library, Infoshop & Anarchist Archives Archived 2005-03-10 at the Wayback Machine
  15. 1 2 Gardner, Michael. Harry Truman and Civil Rights: Moral Courage and Political Risks, Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois Press, 2002
  16. Welles, Orson, and Peter Bogdanovich, This is Orson Welles. New York: HarperCollins Publishers 1992 ISBN   0-06-016616-9
  17. David W. Blight. "The Black Sergeant and the White Judge Who Changed Civil Rights History." New York Times, February 7, 2019, p. BR 10.
  18. 1 2 3 "Town honors an African-American WWII veteran blinded in a 1946 police beating". CNN. Retrieved 2019-02-14.
  19. Myers, Christina L. (May 28, 2018). "Civil Rights Historians tell little known story of WWII vet". Associated Press.

Further reading