Beating & blinding of black soldier in Batesburg pushes then President Truman to take the first
Author of the book detailing this travesty will speak this Wednesday at USC
Lexington County, SC (Paul Kirby) – In a recent article in the New York Times, there was a story about a book that details the career of a white South Carolina judge that had a huge impact on what we now know as civil rights laws. Civil rights laws don’t just protect people of color, rather they guarantee equal rights for everyone regardless of race, gender, religious beliefs, handicaps, or any other circumstance. That young judge’s name was J. Waites Waring, and the case that transformed him into a crusader for those treated unfairly happened right here in Lexington County.
His path toward justice started with a beating of a black soldier that took place in Batesburg in the late 1940s. Few who say they know Batesburg well, know that the beating of Isaac Woodard,26, by two white policemen would spur a president to begin pushing for prosecution and laws that protect the rights of all people regardless of color, gender, religion, or any other circumstance that makes us different from others to this day. The actual passing of most of the laws, would come long after President Truman was gone.
According to a recent article in the NY Times, the details of what happened in Batesburg are in a book written by Richard Gergel called, “Unexampled Courage: The Blinding of Sgt. Isaac Woodard and the Awakening of President Harry S. Truman and Judge J. Waties Waring.” According to that book, Woodard was a black sergeant in the US Army. He was a decorated veteran with a chest full of metals from his service in the Pacific. Originally from Winnsboro SC, he had just been discharged from an all-black, segregated unit at Camp Gordan in Georgia. He and other soldiers of various races were riding a Greyhound bus home when a disagreement broke out between Woodward and the bus driver. The discharged soldiers were celebrating, some say they had been drinking, and Woodward needed a bathroom stop, something the driver didn’t want to do. Eventually, the driver pulled over in Batesburg. There, he summoned the police and Batesburg’s Police Chief Lynwood Shull and his deputy, Elliot Long, arrived. The story goes that the police officers escorted Woodard off the bus.
Later, Chief Shull admitted using his blackjack, a small leather billy club often weighted with lead, to hit the sergeant. Woodard was able to get that from the chief and Officer Long drew his gun and ordered Woodard to drop it. Then, according to Gergel’s book’s account, Shull picked up the club and rained blows on Woodard so ferociously that the blackjack broke. The chief the used the handle of the broken club to gouge out both of Woodard’s eyes leaving him sightless. He was thrown in jail, was convicted of drunk and disorderly conduct, and was fined $50. He settled that debt with his last cash. Doctors said he was irretrievably blind, and the government disclaimed responsibility for his health or long-term care as he had been discharged from the military five hours before his injury happened.
Again, referring to the book for information, news of the egregious beating spread like wildfire through the Negro press. There were 900,000 black veterans who had fought for democracy overseas during World War II, and now those men were demanding justice and democracy at home. Gergel’s book says Orson Welles denounced the beating on his national radio show. Big stars of the day including Joe Louis, Nat King Cole, Cab Calloway, Woody Guthrie and other stars staged a benefit in Harlem where Woodard spoke.
Eventually, the news of Woodard’s beating and plight reached the desk of President Harry Truman. Gergel said in his book Truman told an aide, “Enough is enough. Dammit, I’m going to do something immediately.” The president directed the Justice Department and F.B.I. to pursue a criminal civil rights case against Shull. The case fell to Judge Waites Waring, who wasn’t sure the federal government should even have a role in enforcing racial justice at that time. The book says he was ready to dismiss the charges, but prosecutors were pressed to proceed, and the trial began in November of 1946.
At trial, Woodard testified that Shull had driven the broken handle of the blackjack into each of his eyes. Chief Shull said that Woodard attacked him without provocation, and in self-defense he struck Woodard once with the blackjack. Medical records were never introduced during the trial, but later they were tracked down for the book by Gergel. They showed that a pathologist had confirmed Woodard’s account.
The trial lasted just one day. The jury, which was all-white, came back in just 28 minutes and announced they had found Chief Shull was not guilty. Gergel says in his book that Judge Waring was deeply troubled by the inept prosecution and called the trial a sham. He said it was his “baptism of fire.” Later, Waring would tell reporters, “While on the bench, I developed a passion for justice.”
From that point forward, Judge Waring would go on to rule in favor of many blacks that had been victimized by whites. Gergel’s book says Waring went on to rule that the Democratic Party had to open its whites-only primary to black voters. He also sent a white farmer to prison for a year for forcing an indebted sharecropper to work without pay, which was still a form of slavery commonly winked at by Southern courts. He issued orders enforcing black voting rights. This ended with more blacks appearing on juries, and desegregated jury boxes.These are but a few examples of how Judge Waring fought for all people so that everyone could enjoy the freedoms of being an American with dignity. For his efforts, Judge Waring was tormented by the KKK, a cross was burned in his yard, his life was threatened, and he had to have round the clock security. According to Gergel’s book, Judge Waring eventually left South Carolina for New York and died there in 1968 at age 87. Woodard, the beaten and blind soldier, also ended up in New York and died in the Bronx at age 73 in 1992.
Woodard’s beating in Batesburg was the start of Judge Waring’s crusade to see that all men were treated equally. Among Waring’s admirers, Gergel writes, was a young African-American minister who had masterminded a bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala. He “will long be remembered,” said the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., “for his minority opinion has now become a majority opinion.” Later, that young preacher would go on to become the tireless crusader for those treated unfairly, be shot and killed, and now is memorialized by the MLK holiday that was observed Monday. Who knew that a travesty of justice 74 years ago in Batesburg, now a town where people of all colors live, work, and play side-by-side with each other, was the location where much of the quest for justice began with the senseless beating and blinding of a black soldier?
Richard Gergel, the author of the book, “Unexampled Courage: The Blinding of Sgt. Isaac Woodard and the Awakening of President Harry S. Truman and Judge J. Waties Waring.” will be speaking in Columbia this week. You can join Historic Columbia, the USC History Center and the USC School of Law for “Unexampled Courage: A Conversation with Judge Richard Gergel” on Wednesday, Jan. 23 at the USC School of Law Auditorium. Pre-registration is required and can be done through this link. REGISTER.
The entire story in the New York Times can be read on-line by clicking this STORY LINK. You can purchase Richard Gergel’s book, Unexampled Courage: The Blinding of Sgt. Isaac Woodard and the Awakening of President Harry S. Truman and Judge J. Waties Waring as a hardback or e-book through Amazon by clicking this link. (Buy Now)