More than a million black men and women served in the Armed Forces during World War II. Like them, Woodward was returning to his home in Georgia expecting the segregation of the Jim Crow South to end. Black military personnel had served their country — Woodward was decorated for courage under fire — and wanted the full benefits of citizenship. No more black disenfranchisement, no more separate facilities in the public square, no more thwarted opportunities based on skin pigmentation: they wanted their full civic rights as Americans. In his exchange with the bus driver, Woodard’s words “Talk to me like I am talking to you. I am a man just like you” summed up this new attitude.
In Unexampled Courage: The Blinding of Sgt. Isaac Woodard and the Awakening of President Harry S. Truman and Judge J. Waties Waring (Sarah Crichton Books, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2019, 325 pages), United States district judge Richard Gergel examines in close detail this time of upheaval and change. He gives us a quick look at the general state of segregation in the South and in states like Missouri, takes us into the life of Sergeant Woodard, and then investigates the consequences of Woodard’s beating and blindness.
As Gergel shows us, Woodard’s story aroused sympathy and demands for change among the black community, demands spearheaded by the NAACP, and then attracted the attention of two Americans who would prove vital in bringing about that change.
The first was President Harry S. Truman, who first heard of Woodard in September, 1946. Until then, the Truman administration had struggled with possible ways to diminish racial inequality while at the same time placating their Democratic constituents, particularly those in the South. This attitude of reluctance and indecision changed at a meeting with civil rights leaders when Walter White, an officer in the NAACP and a man Truman knew and respected, shared in great detail the story of Isaac Woodard’s beating.
“As the story unfolded, Truman sat riveted and became visibly agitated and angered. One observer later described his face as ‘distorted in horror.’ Casting his staff’s advice aside, an obviously distressed president replied, ‘My God! I had no idea it was as terrible as that! We have got to do something!
And Truman did something. He founded a committee to make recommendations for federal action. He later put the recommendations of that committee into action, unleashing legal attacks against segregation. He ordered the complete integration of the Armed Forces. In July of 1947, he gave one of the great speeches in our national history, declaring “It is my deep conviction that we have reached a turning point in the long history of our country’s efforts to guarantee freedom and equality to all our citizens.”
A second man was also deeply affected by the Woodard story. Judge Waties Waring of South Carolina presided over the trial of Lynwood Schull for his savage attack on Woodard. When the jury returned a unanimous verdict of not guilty, Judge Waring was stunned both by the weak case presented by the government’s prosecutors and by the inherent evil he now found in Southern racism. This was a moment of revelation in his life, one of those turning points that change us forever. He and his wife, Elizabeth, who had attended the trail and was shattered by the outcome, began studying the history of their region, beginning with W.J. Cash’s The Mind of the South and Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. Soon Waring was involved in civil rights issues in the courtroom, and his ruling against South Carolina’s exclusion of black participants in the Democratic primary made him and Elizabeth outcasts in Charleston society.
In Unexampled Courage, Judge Gergel, who presides in the same courthouse in Charleston where Waring once served, also looks at many other people involved in this civil rights movement, ranging from Orson Wells and his radio show about Isaac Woodard to Thurgood Marshall and his brilliant legal work. As we listen to these voices from the past—the teachers, the farmers, the lawyers, the politicians—we become acutely aware of the importance of the courtroom in advancing liberty during this time. In the 1860s, the United States had fought a horrendous war, in part to free black slaves. In the 1940s and 1950s, a far less bloody but nonetheless deeply significant war was taking place, with the battlefields being courtrooms and the media, and the hearts and minds of millions of people.
After reading Unexampled Courage, we may find ourselves looking with new glasses at the purported racism of our own day. We sometimes use racism as a word for muddying political opponents. Without evidence, many label President Trump a racist. Because Democratic senator Joe Biden worked with colleagues 40 years ago who were segregationists, some now slam him as a racist.
Racism in 1946 was real. Jim Crow prohibited black men and women from the voting booth. It gave them inferior educations. It refused them public service in restaurants, hotels, and theaters. Sometimes it inflicted murder and injury without fear of legal punishment.
In some ways, to keep throwing the word “racism” around in 2019 devalues both the word and the many people, black and white, who once stood up against institutionalized racism.