'Unexampled Courage' Tells The Story That Inspired Integration Of U.S. Armed Forces

Feb 18, 2019
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Now to a new book that uncovers a bit of American racial history that had remained mostly hidden for years. In "Unexampled Courage," Richard Gergel tells the story of racial violence that inspired a landmark court decision and the integration of the U.S. armed forces. Karen Grigsby Bates from our Code Switch team has more.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Army Sergeant Isaac Woodard was one of the thousands of black American men who were returning to the United States after serving their country during World War II.

RICHARD GERGEL: He was discharged on February 12, 1946. He boarded a Greyhound bus headed home to Winnsboro, S.C., in his dress uniform.

BATES: That's U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel. Gergel says Woodard cut an impressive figure.

GERGEL: He had sergeant stripes on his sleeve and medals on his chest.

BATES: During that ride, Woodard took offense at how the driver spoke to him. The driver was offended in turn. And in the next town, Batesburg, he called the local police and ask that they arrest Woodard. Chief Lynwood Shull handcuffed Woodard, took him into custody and beat him with a blackjack so badly, the veteran was blinded. To Shull's surprise, the federal government chose to prosecute him.

U.S. District Judge J. Waties Waring was assigned the case. Waring was a Charleston aristocrat, a descendant of slave owners. Richard Gergel says that history didn't indicate any interest in equal rights. But, Gergel says, Isaac Woodard's case shook Waring.

GERGEL: And when the jury came back - an all-white jury - in 28 minutes with an acquittal, Judge Waring was conscience-stricken. He said, you know, I had to decide whether I was going to be ruled by white supremacy or be a federal judge and decide the law.

BATES: Waring's choice to do the latter made him a pariah to Charleston's whites and a hero to its black citizens. The NAACP had done a good job of publicizing Isaac Woodard's plight. When the news reached President Harry Truman, he was horrified. A year after Woodard's blinding, Truman addressed the NAACP convention and told them the federal government would have to lead the way on integration.

(SOUNDBITE OF NAACP CONVENTION)

HARRY TRUMAN: As a first step, I appointed an advisory committee on civil rights last December - its members, 15 distinguished private citizens, have been surveying our civil rights difficulties and needs for several months.

BATES: One of the committee's conclusions, the armed forces could no longer remain segregated. On July 26, 1948, President Truman announced Executive Order 9981, which ordered the immediate desegregation of the military. Waties Waring was fighting his own war in Charleston. He dissented in the landmark Briggs v. Elliott case, which argued against separate and equal schools.

Briggs set the stage for the Supreme Court's later Brown v. Board decision, and it earned him death threats. In 1957, on public television, Waring predicted that most white Southerners would eventually accept integration.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JULIUS WATIES WARING: There are very, very few that are willing to come out in the open and say so. There are a great many, in my opinion, who would be glad if they are made to do it.

BATES: While researching his book, Richard Gergel made the trip to Batesburg, now called Batesburg-Leesville, and met with the town's mayor, who had never heard the Woodard story.

GERGEL: And some months later, I was advised that the town attorney had gone into the town court to reopen the case of the blinding of Isaac Woodard and to overturn the conviction.

BATES: Earlier this month, a marker was placed in Batesburg-Leesville to commemorate the place where Isaac Woodard was beaten and blinded. The town feels it's important to acknowledge what happened. And the courthouse where Richard Gergel now presides, it's named after J. Waties Waring. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.