Trigger warning: violence
February 12, 1946- Isaac Woodard Jr. is beaten and blinded
At 23 years old, he enlisted in the United States Army and became one of the million African-Americans who served during World War II. As a soldier, he reached the rank of sergeant following his valiant efforts in the Pacific Theater. He received a Battle Star, Good Conduct Medal, Service Medal and World War II Victory Medal. On this day, 75 years ago, U.S. Army Sergeant Isaac Woodard Jr. was in uniform on a Greyhound Lines bus traveling from Camp Gordon in Augusta, Georgia, where he had been discharged, on his way to rejoin his family in North Carolina.
When the bus was at a rest stop just outside Augusta, Woodard asked the bus driver if there was time for him to use a restroom. The driver argued with Woodard before grudgingly letting him get off the bus. Woodard returned to his seat from the rest stop without incident, and the bus departed.
The bus stopped in Batesburg, South Carolina. Though Woodard had caused no problems, the driver contacted the local police, who forcibly removed Woodard from the bus. After demanding to see his discharge papers, a group of cops took Woodard to a nearby alleyway, where they beat him. Then, they took Woodard to the local jail, where he arrested for disorderly conduct, accused of drinking beer in the back of the bus with other soldiers.
During his night in jail, Woodard continued to be beaten. Beaten so badly, that he lost his sight and suffered partial amnesia.
In his court testimony, Woodard stated that he was punched in the eyes by police and later repeatedly jabbed in his eyes with a club.
In the morning, Woodard appeared before the local judge, who found him guilty and fined him $50. He requested medical assistance, which he was denied. He didn’t know where he was. Three weeks after he was reported missing by his relatives, Woodard was discovered in a hospital in Aiken, SC.
South Carolina refused to pursue the case, but President Harry S. Truman ordered a Federal investigation. The sheriff of Batesburg was indicted and went to trial in Federal Court in South Carolina, where he was acquitted by an all-white jury.
Woodard moved to New York City after the trial, where he lived for the rest of his life. Once Woodard settled there, he contacted Walter White, Executive Secretary of the NAACP, who wrote a letter to actor / director / producer Orson Welles. At that time, Welles wrote a syndicated newspaper column and broadcast a weekly political show on the radio. Welles delivered a series of radio broadcasts on Woodard’s behalf in July and August 1946. Welles demanded that those responsible for Woodard’s attack be prosecuted. Welles vowed to fight for Woodard:
“The blind soldier fought for me in this war, the least I can do is fight for him. I have eyes. He hasn’t. I have a voice on the radio. He hasn’t. I was born a white man, and until a colored man is a full citizen, like me, I haven’t the leisure to enjoy the freedom that a colored man risked his life to maintain for me. Until somebody beats me and blinds me, I am in his debt.”
Truman made a speech to the NAACP, the first American president to speak to the organization. It was broadcast by radio from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The President said that Civil Rights was a moral priorty for the Federal Government, and that the issue could not be left to the states and local governments. Truman:
“It is my deep conviction that we have reached a turning point in our country’s efforts to guarantee freedom and equality to all our citizens. Recent events in the United States and abroad have made us realize that it is more important today than ever before to ensure that all Americans enjoy these rights. When I say all Americans, I mean all Americans.”
In February 1948, Truman sent the first comprehensive Civil Rights bill to Congress. In July 1948, over the objection of senior military officers, Truman issued an Executive Order banning racial discrimination in the U.S. Armed Forces, and an Executive Order to integrate the Federal Government.
Polls showed popular opposition to Truman’s Civil Rights efforts. Although he narrowly won election, his continued championing Civil Rights as Federal priority cost him much support, especially in the South. The cause was so unpopular that Truman chose not to seek re-election in 1952.