Black History Month: The Redux-Sgt. Isaac Woodard

28 days ain’t enough. Based on my research as a history teacher and human, I will be using the month of July to periodically post about a figure or group that you may or may not have heard of, but who has left a critical imprint on American society. Feel free to comment and spread the message with friends and loved ones. Focus on the roots–don’t worry about the branches.

Heavyweight champion Joe Louis, Sgt. Isaac Woodard, and Neil Scott

2-Sgt. Isaac Woodard

How did a brutal and unjustified assault on a returning Army veteran result in a step toward civil rights and a president’s change of heart?

“Victory at home and abroad.” This was the rallying cry for the Double V campaign aimed at simultaneously winning WW2 for the allied forces and equal rights for African Americans within their own nation. Though the not-yet desegregated American armed services were successful abroad, hopeful black soldiers returning from war were greeted with a yet unresolved battle waged in the hearts and minds of their fellow Americans. Decorated war hero Sgt. Isaac Woodard had the misfortune of experiencing this first hand upon reentering the separate but unequal American South and taking on their ageless white supremacist leader who preyed on the fears of white citizens: Jim Crow.

Riding on a bus from Georgia to North Carolina, the driver and a uniformed Woodard exchanged pointed words after he was denied a rest stop request. When the bus finally did pull over in South Carolina, Woodard was instructed to exit only to be met by seething local police officers. Led by Chief Shull, they beat Woodard so badly that he was left permanently blind in both eyes. Not only that, but he was fined and denied medical attention that day. His family filed a missing person report and wouldn’t find him for three days until he turned up in a South Carolina hospital.

Many called for justice after the incident, and thanks to a concerted effort by Woodard, the NAACP, and even famous radio personality Orson Welles, charges were eventually filed against Chief Shull. However, no witnesses were ever interviewed other than the driver, and a racist defense lawyer and all-white jury acquitted Shull on every charge.

Informed as to the particulars of this case by NAACP leaders, President Harry Truman, himself a child of the confederacy, immediately came to conscience and formed a committee on civil rights. He released a report titled, “To Secure These Rights,” declaring that the federal government must intervene to overcome racial discrimination, and desegregated the armed forces by executive order in 1948.

In his Fair Deal, Truman also asked congress for Fair Employment Practices to lift restrictions on employment opportunities for African Americans. Sadly, this was met with defeat as southern senators threatened filibusters against the Fair Deal.

Woodard lived into his early 70’s and died in the Bronx, New York living off charity.

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