Every year, I learn a new history lesson. My lesson this year was about Isaac Woodard. Last Sunday was somewhat of an ignominious anniversary for him, even though he’s been dead since 1992.
It was on Feb. 12, 1946, when the 27-year-old Woodard was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army at Camp Gordon in Augusta. Still wearing his uniform, Woodard boarded a bus at the Greyhound Station and headed home to see his wife in Winnsboro, S.C.
About an hour outside of Augusta, the bus driver pulled over, and Woodard asked him if he could get off to use the restroom. According to sworn testimony, the bus driver replied, “Hell no. God damn it. Go back and sit down.”
It didn’t matter to the bus driver that he was speaking to a decorated veteran who had served in the Southwest Pacific. It didn’t matter that Woodard wore a Good Conduct medal and a Battle Star medal.
Then something happened that must have taken the driver’s breath away. Woodard responded, “God damn it. Talk to me like I’m talking to you. I’m a man just like you.”
The bus driver let him off to use the bathroom, and nothing more was said until the bus arrived in Batesburg, S.C., the morning of Feb. 13. The bus stops and the driver gets off. A few minutes later he returns, walks down the aisle, taps Woodard on the shoulder and says, “Get up. Someone outside wants to see you.”
There stood two police officers. The bus driver told them, “This soldier (so he did see the uniform) has been making a disturbance on the bus.”
As Woodard began to explain what happened, one of the policemen hit him across the head with a billy club and told him to shut up.
Woodard didn’t say another word. He grew up in the South and understood what the policemen were capable of doing. Even as they twisted his arm and led him down the street, he remained silent.
One officer asked him had he been discharged, and Woodard replied, “Yes.” The officer said, “Don’t say ‘yes’ to me, say ‘yes sir.’ ” Woodard, again according to sworn testimony, begged the officer’s pardon, and began to say “Yes sir” when the beating started. It would get worse.
At the police station, the beating continued. Woodard was knocked unconscious. When he came to his senses, an officer was gouging his eyes with his billy club. The officer was Chief of Police Lynwood Lanier Shull. They tossed him in a cell until the next morning. When they returned to take him to the judge, Woodard said he couldn’t see.
You can probably guess the rest. The judge found Woodard guilty and sentenced him to a $50 fine or a month of hard labor on the road.
In less than 24 hours, Woodard had gone from protecting the nation to a blind man. You can read the sworn testimony at http://faculty.uscup state.edu/amyers/civillawsuit.html.
While there was an initial effort to keep the story quiet, it didn’t end up as they planned. Woodard’s plight was first turned into a song by calypso artist Lord Invader, “God Made Us All.” Then Woody Guthrie penned “The Ballad of Isaac Woodard.” Orson Welles, one of the biggest stars of radio and film, railed against the policeman on his national radio broadcast. On Aug. 16, 1946. Cab Calloway, Welles, Milton Berle, Billie Holiday and others held a rally and performance at Harlem’s Lewisohn Stadium, and more than 30,000 people attended.
Did Woodard lose his sight in vain? True, Police Chief Shull would be found not guilty even though he admitted gouging Woodard’s eyes out. Shull lived to be 92. But Woodard got the last laugh. It was his case that inspired President Harry S. Truman’s Executive Order 9981, issued July 26, 1948, banning racial discrimination in the nation’s armed services.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Charles E. Richardson is The Macon Telegraph’s editorial page editor. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.