Isaac Woodard, a Black World War II veteran, was left blind after a racist assault by South Carolina police in February of 1946. His injuries and arrest, a new documentary explains, fueled the Civil Rights movement, and ultimately changed America.
The Blinding of Issac Woodard premiered Tuesday (March 30) on “American Experience” on PBS. Directed by Jamila Ephron and narrated by André Holland, the documentary follows how the assault Woodard experienced “led to the racial awakenings of South Carolina Judge J. Waties Waring and President Harry Truman, who desegregated federal offices and the military two years later,” according to the network. It's based on author Richard Gergel's book entitled Unexampled Courage.
Woodard, who was an Army Sergeant and decorated soldier, was headed home to South Carolina after three years of service when a bus driver called him “boy,” after Woodard asked to stop to use the restroom.
“I’m a man just like you,” Woodard replied and asked the driver not to speak to him that way, according to a report by DeNeen L. Brown of The Washington Post. The driver called the police at the next city and an officer dragged Woodard off the bus, and started beating him immediately. The officer drove a club into Woodard’s eyes, blinding him.
The cop took Woodard to jail where someone poured whiskey on him to make it appear as if Woodard was drunk. The next morning, The Post detailed, Woodard was made to sign some papers that he couldn’t see or read because of the injuries to his eyes.
Two months after the attack, Woodard met with NAACP leaders in New York to work on his case. The organization’s legal team, headed up by Thurgood Marshall, had been looking for cases like Woodard’s that would demonstrate the violent reality of Jim Crow laws, lynchings, and white supremacy violence. Woodard was just one of hundreds of Black veterans who’d been attacked, and an unknown number of Black vets who were lynched upon their return from serving the US.
“So many people did not survive their encounters with police officers,” Director Ephron told The Post in a telephone interview. “Here, someone had survived. Isaac Woodard’s face bore the evidence of the crime committed against him.”
Woodard, with the support of the NAACP spoke out against the violence as a way “to galvanize people.” Through a radio show and mass support from the public, the NAACP uncovered the name of the officer who’d blinded Woodard.
The civil rights group got a meeting with President Truman who heard Woodard’s story and was reportedly shocked about the severity of racial violence. The day after the meeting, Truman ordered then US Attorney General, Tom Clark, to file federal civil rights violations charges against South Carolina police officer Lynwood Shull.
Shull’s trial began on November 5, 1946 with Judge Waring, the son of a Confederate soldier, presiding.An all-white jury took only 15 minutes to deliberate before acquitting Shull of the charges.
Appalled by the “blatant miscarriage of justice,” Waring and his wife would go on to fight racism and oppression for the remainder of his career, even after becoming “the targets of threats and violence,” according to PBS.
President Truman signed an executive order establishing the President’s Committee on Civil Rights one month after the trial ended. He went on to speak at the NAACP National Convention in 1947 and later integrated the military and federal government agencies.
To learn more about the documentary, click here.
Photo: Getty Images