You are a decorated soldier. You served your country proudly in the war. And now, you are on your way home. You buy a ticket for a Greyhound bus in Atlanta, Georgia, and after you’ve been on the road for a while, the bus pulls up to a small drug store. You ask the driver if there is time for you to use the restroom. He says yes, but he’s not too happy about it. When you get to Batesburg, several police forcibly remove you from the bus, drag you into an alley, and beat you with billy clubs. Then you are arrested for disorderly conduct and taken to jail where, in the night, they come into your cell and again attack you with billy clubs, gouging out your eyes. It will be three weeks before your family can find you, languishing in a hospital. You cannot see, and you cannot remember. Eventually, the memories come flooding back. And even though Police Chief Shull will admit under oath to repeatedly gouging your eyes, he will suffer no repercussions. He walks away, a free man. You will both live to be old men--Shull with his 20/20 vision, and you blind for life.
THE STORY, WRIT LARGE
As a young boy in North Carolina, Isaac managed to stay alive and thrive, even under the harsh glare of Jim Crow laws. Born in Fairfield County and growing up in Goldsboro, he attended segregated schools, known for their poor conditions due to chronic underfunding.
Woodard was 23 when he was inspired to join the Army, memories of Pearl Harbor burned into his brain. He arrived at Fort Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina on October 14th, 1942. Woodard served proudly in a labor battalion as a longshoreman, stationed in the Pacific Theatre, and was quickly promoted to sergeant. . Isaac Woodard was a brave man, earning a battle star for his Asiatic-Pacific Theater Campaign Medal by unloading ships under enemy fire in New Guinea. He also received the Good Conduct Medal, the Service Medal, and a World War II Victory Medal. And when the endless war finally ended, Woodard received an honorable discharge.
February 12, 1946 was a day that would change Woodard’s life forever. He boarded a Greyhound bus in Atlanta, Georgia, with plans to meet his wife further up the road in North Carolina, then on to meet his parents in New York. After they had been on the road for a while, the bus pulled up to a small drug store. Woodard asked the bus driver if there was time for him to use the restroom. The driver insulted Woodard, but let him off the bus for a few minutes. Woodard returned to his seat, and no more words were exchanged. But Woodard could not imagine the horrors that lay ahead for him up the road.
Next stop: Batesburg, South Carolina. The driver, who had apparently been stewing about the restroom incident for many miles, immediately contacted the local police. Within minutes, Chief of Police Linwood Shull ordered Isaac off the bus. Isaac obeyed. “Where are your discharge papers?” he barked. Woodard showed the officer. Shull then twisted Woodard’s arm behind his back and started walking him down the street to a nearby alley as he beat Woodard with a nightstick. When Woodard screamed in pain and grabbed the nightstick, suddenly another cop appeared, and was aiming a gun at Isaac as they continued walking. Once they turned the corner into the alley, the cops beat him mercilessly with their nightsticks. Woodard was then arrested for disorderly conduct, and thrown in a jail cell.
As Woodard was trying was trying to sleep through the long, hellish night, trying to fend off his terror, Shull and a gang of other cops came into Woodard’s cell and continued the beatings, giving particular attention to Woodard’s eyes, which were effectively gouged out. When Isaac awoke the next morning, he was blind. Police Chief Shull came to his cell, and Woodard was dragged to the courtroom as he groped and stumbled his way along. The judge threatened him with 30 days hard labor, unless he could come up with the fifty dollar fine. And lest you think that doesn’t sound like much, adjusted for inflation, that was a demand for 649.79.
Woodard was then hauled back to jail, then to a hospital. Nobody made any effort to help him find his relatives. Three weeks after his family reported him missing, Woodard was finally found, languishing in a hospital bed. His family immediately moved him to the US Army Hospital in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Although he was starting to recover from his amnesia, doctors said that his eyes had been damaged beyond repair.
A NATION RESPONDS: The story initially received very little coverage, but the NAAC P pushed for days, weeks, months to shine a light on it. When long time Civil Rights champion Orson Welles heard about the Woodard tragedy, he did an entire show dedicated to it, sparing no purple prose, and seemingly overnight, much of America was enraged:
What does it cost to be a Negro? In Aiken, South Carolina it cost a man his eyes. What does it cost to wear over your skeleton the pinkish tint officially described as white? In Aiken, South Carolina it cost a man his soul... Your eyes, Officer X, your eyes, remember, were not gouged away, only the lids are closed. You might raise the lids, you might just try the wild adventure of looking, you might see something. It might be a simple truth, one of those truths held to be self-evident by our founding fathers and by most of us. If we should ever find you bravely blinking at the sun, we will know then that the world is young after all, that chaos is behind us and not ahead. Then there will be shouting of trumpets to rouse the dead at Gettysburg, a thunder of cannon will declare the tidings of peace, and all the bells of liberty will laugh out loud in the streets to celebrate goodwill towards all men.
Note: Orson Welles named the town of Aiken because that is the small town Woodard thought that was where the bus had stopped, and so named Aiken in his deposition. It was really Batesburg. Aiken was furious, and refused to show any Orson Welles movies thereafter.
Much of America was enraged after the famous Orson Welles broadcast, yes, but who was not enraged was the population of Batesburg. Nobody was arrested, and for Chief of Police Shull and his henchmen, it was business as usual. “To Protect and Serve.” Unless you happen to be black.
A GOVERNMENT RESPONDS: The NAACP kept pushing the story, and on September 19th, 1946, the NAACP’s Executive Secretary Walter Francis White found himself meeting with President Harry S. Truman in the Oval Office to discuss the Woodard case. A full seven months had passed since the incident, and nobody had done anything—no trial, no justice. Michael R. Gardner, in his book “Harry Truman and Civil Rights: Moral Courage and Political Risks” writes of Truman’s fury, stating that when Truman "heard this story in the context of the state authorities of South Carolina doing nothing for seven months, he exploded." Truman then fired off a letter to his Attorney General demanding action, and within a week, Truman directed the Department of Justice to open an investigation into the Isaac Woodard case.
Suddenly, action was being taken. But all the signs did not look good. There was a shoddy investigation, as pressured and resentful locals barely “cooperated” with agents of the federal government. Because the beating had occurred at a bus stop that was on federal property, and because Woodard had been a soldier in uniform (the locals’ objection that he had been discharged for five hours at the time of the incident did not go over well), the trial fell within federal jurisdiction.
From the first filing of the charges, proud South Carolinians closed ranks. A defense fund was started for Police Officer Shull, and Batesburg’s most respected citizens, led by the Mayor, made it their business to post Shull’s bond. And unbelievably (why did I just write that), the state law enforcement association adopted a resolution protesting the “high-handed” interference of federal authorities in a “purely local matter.”
Judge Julius Waties Waring presided over the case. Judge Waring had experienced an interesting journey of his own—well worth reading about—from typical southern judge exhibiting racial bias, to an amazingly progressive man, given the times. An eighth-generation Charlestonian, Waring had become more sympathetic on racial issues since marrying a social progressive from New York City. He was clearly sympathetic to Woodard’s side during the proceedings, although maintained an aura of professional impartiality throughout the trial.
Sadly, by all accounts, the trial was a joke to most of the locals involved, and yet a further series of insults and attacks to victim Isaac Woodard.
Once the trial proper started, it was, of course, populated by an all-white jury, “Negroes” being excluded from the process in South Carbolina in the 1940’s. The local U.S. Attorney charged with handling the case had failed to interview anyone except the bus driver, a decision that Judge 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...in submitting that disgraceful case...."
Shull denied the version of events as told by poor Isaac Woodard. Not surprisingly, local police backed up Shull’s version: the officer claimed that he merely “brushed” Woodard with his nightstick (I don’t even know what that means), and the, police testified, Woodard then tried to grab the nightstick and beat the policeman. Shull also claimed that Woodard had a gun, and was threatening everybody with it. (The more things change, the more they stay the same.) But a university student and a white soldier, both of whom were on the bus, both corroborated Woodard’s story—the part they could see, that is.
The defense attorney for Chief of Police Shull was a piece of work. His rhetoric for the duration of the trial was liberally peppered with “nigger” and other abhorrent epithets, in spite of the Judge’s frequent admonitions. And Shull’s defense attornies continued the racist rhetoric right through their fiery summation: Woodard belongs to “an inferior race”, one proclaimed, then went on to say that his “vulgar” talk was “not the talk of a sober South Carolina Negro”…This was apparently a reference to Woodard’s telling the bus driver that “He needed to take a piss.”
Defense’s closing speech ended with a flourish. “If Lynwood Shull is convicted today,” Shull’s attorney warned, “You will be saying to the public officers of South Carolina that you no longer want your home, your wife, and your children protected.” Another of Shull’s counsel alluded heavily to the Confederacy and the Civil War. If delivering a verdict against the federal government “means that South Carolina’ll have to secede again,” he told the jurors, “then let’s secede!”
On November 5, the jury found Shull not guilty on all charges, despite his admission that he had blinded Woodard. The jury deliberated for a whole 25 minutes. Judge Waring later speculated that he felt the jury would have taken even less time, but the Judge used this time to take a long walk, deep in thought—this trial was to transform the judge profoundly. Then, after the jury walked back into the courtroom, Shull was acquitted “to the cheers of a crowded courtroom”. (Walter White, “A Man Called White: The Autobiography of Walter White. 1948. Page 327.) The man who blinded Isaac Woodard went on to live a full and rich life. He died in in Batesburg, South Carolina on December 27, 1997 at age 95.
Isaac Woodard moved North after the trial 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
PARTING NOTES: One of the people who was very deeply moved by Isaac Woodard’s story was folk artist Woody Guthrie. He wrote and recorded "The Blinding of Isaac Woodard," which then came out as a part of his album The Great Dust Storm. He said that he wrote the song "...so'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...." 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."
FINAL THOUGHTS: a cynic might say that Isaac Woodard got off lucky. That same year, another black servicemen, John C. Jones, was found murdered in a swamp outside of Minden, Louisiana. His friend, 17 year old Albert Harris had been thrown into the swamp next to him, and only because he was not quite dead, and able to escape, do we know the story: a bunch of white men in the area circulated the story that two black men were coming after their white women. John C. Jones had his hands chopped off with a meat cleaver and a blowtorch applied to his face before being executed, his remains being tossed in a swamp outside of Minden, Louisiana. And, like thousands of lynched Negroes, nobody wrote a song about him.
EXTRA MATERIAL: Below, read the story in Isaac Woodard own words, as transcribed directly from his deposition. The lines in italics are taken from the actual trial transcripts themselves, as I believe they add even more poignancy and outrage. I, ISAAC WOODARD, JR., being duly sworn, do depose and state as follows:
THAT, I reside at 1100 Franklin Avenue, Bronx, New York, Apartment 2. I am 27 years old, and a veteran of the United States Army, having served from the 12th of October, 1952, to the 12th of February, 1946, when I received an honorable discharge from Camp Gordon, Georgia. I served for 15 months in the South Pacific with the 429th Port Battalion. I served in the Philippines and in New Guinea and earned one battle star.
I was discharged about 5:30 P.M. on February 12, 1946, from Camp Gordon, Georgia. At 8:30 P.M. at the Greyhound Terminal in Atlanta, Georgia, while I was in uniform, I purchased a ticket to Winnsboro, South Carolina and took the bus headed there to pick up my wife to come to New York to see my father and mother. About one hour out of Atlanta the bus driver stopped at a small drug store. As he stopped, I asked him if he had time to wait for me until I had a chance to go to the rest room. He cursed and said, “No.” When he cursed me, I cursed him back. After I cursed him, he said, “Go ahead and get off and hurry back,” so I got off, hurrying back as he said.
About half an hour later, when the bus got to Aiken, he stopped again and got off and went and got the police. I did not know what he was doing and thought it was just a regular stop. He came back and came in the bus and came to me and said, “Come outside for a minute,” and I got off the bus. When I walked out, the police were there. As I walked out, the bus driver started telling the police that I was the one that was disturbing the bus. When he said that, I started explaining to the police that I was not raising a disturbance on the bus, but they didn’t give me a chance to explain. The policeman struck me with a billy across my head and told me to “shut up.” After he finished talking he said to me, “You won’t catch this bus out of here, you catch the next bus.”
After that, he grabbed me by my left arm and twisted it behind my back, and walked me down the street, continually twisting my wrist. I figured he was trying to make resist. I did not resist against him. He asked me was I discharged, and I told him, “Yes.” When I said, “Yes,” that is when he started beating me with the billy; hitting me across the top of my head. After that, I grabbed his billy and wrung it out of his hand. He ran behind my back and grabbed my arm again. I had him by his right shoulder. After that another policeman came up and throw [sic] his gun on me and told me to drop the billy or he would drop me, so I dropped the billy.
After I dropped the billy, the second policeman hold his gun on me while the other one was beating me as we were walking down the street. I did not see anyone on the street. When we got to the door of the police station, he struck me again and knocked me unconscious. After I commenced to come to myself, he hollered, “Get up.” When I started to get up, he started punching me in my eyes with the end of his billy. I finally got up, and when I got up, he pushed me inside the jail house and locked me up. I could still see for a few minutes as I can remember, because I was hardly conscious.
A few minutes after he locked me up, he came in and threw me my purse. He went back out and locked the door. I picked out a cot and lied down.
I woke up the next morning and could not see. Someone brought me my breakfast to the bed. After that, a policeman came to the door and opened the door and told me to come out. He said, “Let’s go up here and see what the judge wants.” I told him that I could not see how to come out, I was blind. He said, “Feel your way out.” I did not make any move to come out, so he walked in and led me to a sink and told me to wash my face, and said that I would be all right after I washed my face. He then led me up to the judge, and the judge said to me, “You were raising sand on the last night – – – stubborn.” So I said to him, “No, sir,” and I told him what happened. After I told him what happened, he said, “We don’t have that kind of stuff down here.” After he said that, the policeman spoke and said, “He wrung my billy out of my hand, and I told him that if he did not drop it, I would drop him.” That is how I knew it was the same policeman as had beat my eyes out.
After that, the judge spoke and said, “I fine you $50.00 or 30 hard days on the road.” I said I would pay the $50.00 but I did not have the $50.00 at the time. So the policeman said “You have some money there in your wallet.” He took my wallet and took all I had out of it, and he said “Is that all the money you have?” I said “No I have some more in my watch pocket.” I had four one dollar bills in my watch pocket and I pulled it out and they took that. which was a total of $40.00 and took $4.00 from my watch pocket and they took that. I had a check for $694.73, which was my mustering out pay and soldiers deposit. He said to me, “Can you see how to sign this check — you have a government check.” I told him, “No, sir”. “I said I could not sign my name myself, because I never had tried to sign my name without seeing.” So he gave me the check back, so the judge told the police to carry me back and lock me up them.
Q: When you were taken for trial there, did you have an attorney in the court that morning, a lawyer to represent you.
A: No sir.
Q: Did you have any friends there?
A: No sir.
Mr. Morris: I do not believe that is material, Your Honor.
He took me back and locked me up in jail. I stayed in there for a while and after a few minutes he came in and asked me if I wanted a drink of whiskey — if I took a drink of whiskey I would probably feel better. I told him, “No, sir,” I did not care for any. He went and got some kind of eye medicine and came back and poured it in both my eyes. He went and got a hot towel and spread it across my head. I stayed there for the rest of the day until about 5:30 that evening. I could tell about what time it was because I asked a policeman and he told me it was late. I do not know if that was the same policeman. At that time he came in and get me and told me that “We’re going to take you to the hospital.” I did not hear anyone else in the room.
He took me to the Veterans’ Hospital in Columbia, S.C. When I got there, the doctor was not in at the time, so he laid me on a bench. A nurse took my name and asked me where I was from and everything, so I told her I was from Winnsboro, N.C. The doctor came in and he questioned the policeman and asked him what was the matter. The policeman told him that I was raising a disturbance on the bus and drunk. The doctor asked the policeman was I drunk then, and he said “No.” … I believe that the doctor who cared for me was named Dr. Clarence. I told him what had happened to me. He made no comment, but told me I should join a blind school. I stayed in the hospital for two months — I went in on the 13th of February and came out on the 13th of April. My sisters came down to see me, and since they discharged me while they were down there, they brought me back up to New York to my father’s home in the Bronx, where I am still staying.
Sworn to before me
this 23rd day of