In his new book Unexampled Courage: The Blinding of Sgt. Isaac Woodard and the Awakening of President Harry S. Truman and Judge J. Waties Waring
(Sarah Crichton Books, 2019), District Judge Richard M. Gergel
asks pertinent questions for the Summer of 2020. How do tragic events awaken white people to the violence of structural racism? What do white people do about it? How do black leaders shape their agendas? Unexampled Courage connects the stories of Isaac Woodard, Harry Truman, and J. Waties Waring to illustrate how one incident fits into the larger history of civil rights.
On February 12, 1946, Sergeant Isaac Woodard was discharged from the United States military after serving in World War II. While traveling home by bus, Woodard, one of the 900,000 African American men to serve in WWII, was pulled off the bus and arrested for speaking disrespectfully to the white bus driver. While in the custody of police in Batesburg, South Carolina, Sergeant Woodard was beaten and blinded. Viewed in isolation, the blinding of Isaac Woodard appears to be one of many incidents of police brutality against African Americans but Gergel describes how this particular case – publicized widely by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the black press, and Orson Welles – reached President Harry Truman and set off a chain of events impacting 20th century American civil rights.
In this extensively researched book, Gergel details how the mistreatment of Isaac Woodard shocked President Truman into creating a presidential commission on civil rights “To Secure These Rights” and ordering the Justice Department to prosecute Lynwood Shull, the chief of police in Batesburg. Shull was tried in South Carolina with Judge J. Waties Waring presiding – and found not guilty by an all-white jury. The verdict surprised and outraged Judge Waring who moved to confront racism – his own and that of the institutions that he supported. Moving forward, he ruled against racial segregation in Briggs v. Elliott (1952) and his decision helped lay the foundation for Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) and the legal precedent that separate but equal is “inherently unequal.”
The book highlights how black Americans who fought for civil rights risked their livelihood, bodies, and lives while whites like Truman and Waring negotiated social disapproval, political backlash, and – sometimes – violence. Although the focus is on the white men who “awaken,” he demonstrates the importance of Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP leadership in addressing how institutional inconsistencies (e.g. Department of Justice, FBI, jury procedures, racist law enforcement) produced a bystander government.
In the podcast, Judge Gergel connects this mid-century civil rights history to the death of George Floyd, the inability of Congress to pass the Emmett Till Antilynching Act in June 2020, and the challenges of legal reform that remain. He also reveals that the book will be the subject of a public television documentary.
Adam Liebell-McLean assisted with this podcast.
Susan Liebell is associate professor of political science at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. She is the author of Democracy, Intelligent Design, and Evolution: Science for Citizenship (Routledge, 2013) and, most recently, “Retreat from the Rule of Law: Locke and the Perils of Stand Your Ground” in the Journal of Politics (August 2020).