The Unseen Civil Rights Hero


(Photo courtesy of Tyler Davidson)

Through one man being blinded, many were given sight to see the atrocity of racism and segregation.

When people think of the Civil Rights Movement, names such as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. come to mind. While these people had a huge impact on the Civil Rights Movement, another, often forgotten, person had a huge impact as well. His name was Sergeant Isaac Woodard, and his story led to the desegregation of the United States Armed Forces.

“The importance in the community is to just to honor a soldier, to honor an African-American hero who’s from our town that was forgotten. This moment was the cornerstone for the Civil Rights Movement in our country,” said Mayor Lancer Shull of Batesburg-Leesville (who is not related to the former police chief in this story) at the unveiling of Sergeant Woodard’s plaque to memorialize him.

Sergeant Woodard was born in Fairfield, South Carolina but later moved to North Carolina. When World War II came around Woodard enlisted in the Army at Camp Jackson in South Carolina. After the war was over, Sergeant Woodard was honorably discharged and  headed home.

On February 12th, 1946, Woodard boarded a Greyhound Bus to go home to North Carolina. When Woodard asked the driver to stop so he could use the bathroom, the driver became agitated but did so grudgingly. Woodard returned to his seat and did not bother the driver for the rest of the drive. When the bus arrived in Batesville, the cops were waiting. Turns out, the driver of the bus had called them and reported Woodard for disorderly conduct. The cops removed him from the bus and took him into custody still in his uniform.

“He helped defend his nation from a fearful enemy, came home to find that he still wasn’t free,” said singer Angela Easterling in her song “Isaac Woodard’s Eye” which is a grim reminder of the events that occurred.

After the police, including former Chief of Police Shull, asked Woodard for his discharge papers, they began to beat him in a nearby alleyway. The police then arrested him for disorderly conduct for drinking beer on the back of the bus. While in prison, Shull and the other policemen continued to beat Woodard while questioning him. Woodard’s eyes were eventually gouged out during this altercation, and during his testimony, he said it was due to the police repeatedly jabbing his eyes with a Billy Club. He also suffered partial amnesia as a result. The next day he was convicted and Sergeant Woodard did not receive medical treatment until three days later. His family would not know what happened until three weeks after the incident.

“The blinding of Isaac Woodard was a crime, but a far graver crime would be to continue to blind our children and to blind ourselves,” said Andy Duncan, who lives in Batesburg-Leesville but did not hear the story of Sergeant Woodard until the unveiling ceremony.

Seven months after the incident the NAACP Executive Secretary Walter Francis White met with the president at the time, President Harry S. Truman, to discuss Sergeant Woodard’s case. When the President heard the details, he exploded with rage. Truman directed the Department of Justice to open an investigation into Woodard’s case.

After a short investigation, Shull and some of his men were indicted in the U.S. District Court on October 2nd. The judge presiding over the case was Judge Julius Waties Waring. The trial was unjust from the beginning because of the all white jury. This is because juries are drawn from the voters and since the voters of the time were white so was the jury. The prosecutor failed to interview anyone but the bus driver, which was a decision blasted by Judge Waring. The defense was just as awful. The defense attorney yelled racial slurs until Waring cut him off. The attorney went as far as to say if the jury went against Shull, South Carolina should secede from the U.S. Shull also admitted he struck Woodard but he made false claims such as Woodard having a gun. Jury deliberations only took thirty minutes and Shull was found not guilty on all charges.

“I was shocked by the hypocrisy of my government…in submitting that disgraceful case…,” said Judge Julius Waties Waring after seeing the results of the trial of Shull and the other police officers.

Truman and his administration were also outraged by the result of the trial.Late in 1948, as a result of the trial, Truman issued two executive orders, Executive Order 9981 and Executive Order 9980. These orders desegregated the United States Government and banned discrimination in the U.S. Army.

Judge J. Waties Waring later became an outspoken supporter of the Civil Rights Movement and called his experience with the Woodard case “a baptism by fire”. Waring would face protesters and others messing with him throughout the Civil Rights Movement including the KKK burning a cross in front of his house. Judge J. Waties Waring also ruled in Duvall v School Board which gave equal pay to teachers with equal education. However, his most important case was Briggs v. Elliot where he was part of a three-judge team. Though the case was lost, he and his phrase,“Segregation is per se inequality,” helped form the foundation for the decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.

As for Woodard, he spent the rest of his life needing to be cared for. He died at age 73 after moving away from the Carolinas. Even though Woodard’s story may not be a happy one, it helped lead to a necessary changes to give equal rights to people of all races.