Yesterday, we honored Martin Luther King and his life’s work: the movement to racial equality and justice. From Montgomery to Birmingham, to Washington, and to Memphis, Dr. King dedicated his life and sacrificed comfort and safety for the liberty of fellow Americans. "And, I don’t mind," he said. "I just want to do God’s will."
But prior to the hard-fought wins of the civil rights movement, even soldiers returning from war were not exempt from "the indignity of insult, the harrowing fear of intimidation, and… the threat of physical injury and mob violence." We rightly hang our heads in shame at the disdainful welcome-home we gave Vietnam War veterans. But we have forgotten entirely the experience of the returning black soldiers of the 1940’s.
Isaac Woodard was black. He served in the Army during World War II, unloading anti-aircraft ammunition on the Philippine islands and New Guinea. He earned one battle star, performing his duties under fire during the New Guinea campaign. He was honorably discharged in February, 1946. The day after his discharge, still in uniform, Isaac took a bus home from Camp Gordon, GA to Winnsboro, SC. He was planning on meeting his wife there. Isaac never made it to Winnsboro.
During the ride, Isaac asked the driver to use the bathroom at the next stop. The white driver said no and cursed at him. Isaac cursed back. At the next stop, Batesburg, SC, the police were waiting. They hit him on the head with a billy club. They pinned him on the ground. One officer drew a gun on him. The other pounded the end of his club into Isaac’s eyes. His eyeballs burst, he was blinded, and he fell unconscious. He awoke in jail and was fined $50.
This event could have ended in that jail cell. But instead it resonated. In my research, I found three major contributions that Isaac’s ordeal made to the broader civil rights movement. Through the loss of his eyes, Isaac Woodard continued to serve his country.
- In July, 1946, Orson Welles (a famous film director and radio broadcaster) heard about Isaac’s experience. He took to the airwaves, lambasting Batesburg police for their brutality. These broadcasts mobilized thousands of people to support the civil rights movement.
- The NAACP took the officer, Linwood Shull, to court. Despite admitting openly that he had beat Isaac to blindness, the all-white jury acquitted the officer. The judge, Julius Waring (a southerner raised on racial prejudice), saw the injustice in the ruling and eventually became a civil-right champion. He would go on to rule in favor of voting rights for blacks in South Carolina. He would also write an influential opinion for Brown vs. Board of Education, leading to the integration of public schools. (May 1954)
- President Truman also heard about Isaac as he prepared to give a speech to the NAACP at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. He was enraged. He was speaking of Isaac when he told the thousands in attendance: "Many of our people still suffer the indignity of insult, the harrowing fear of intimidation, and, I regret to say, the threat of physical injury and mob violence. The prejudice and intolerance in which these evils are rooted still exist. The conscience of our nation, and the legal machinery which enforces it, have not yet secured to each citizen full freedom from fear." (June 1947) Six months later, President Truman issued the orders that desegregated both the federal workforce and the United States Military.
Woodard would spend the rest of his life speaking to gatherings and on the radio, telling his story. He spoke out against violence. Unable to work, Isaac lived on a $50 monthly pension from the VA and a $29 monthly pension from the NAACP.
Isaac Woodard did not ask to become a catalyst in the march to racial equality. But he deserves our thanks for filling that role with the same honor he displayed on the beaches of the Pacific.