Blinded by Justice

Isaac Woodard was born in 1919 in South Carolina. He enlisted in the Army during World War II and served in the Pacific Theatre. He received a promotion to Sergeant and received a Battle Star.

As he was returning home from the war, the bus he was riding on stopped in South Carolina. The bus driver contacted the local police to remove Isaac from the bus for no reason other than his race. The police demanded to see his discharge papers while removing him from the bus. Led by the police chief Lynwood Shull, Isaac was beaten and arrested.

During the night while Isaac was in his jail cell, Shull repeatedly beat him and gouged out his eyes, leaving him permanently blind. The next morning, Isaac was found guilty and fined $50. Isaac asked for medical assistance. It took two days for a doctor to see him.

Isaac suffered from amnesia and didn’t know where he was. It wasn’t until his family tracked him down that the military took him to a veteran’s hospital so that Isaac received proper care.

The NAACP worked to get justice for Isaac but the State of South Carolina refused to act on his behalf. Broadcaster Orson Welles took up his case and focused on the injustice done to Isaac over four broadcasts. Later, musicians wrote songs about the incident.

Seven months after the incident, President Truman ordered the U.S. Attorney General to take action. Shull and other police officers were indicted.

The resulting court case was a mockery of justice. The local U.S. Attorney did virtually nothing. The defense attorney repeatedly shouted racial slurs at Isaac. The all-white jury found Shull and the others to be innocent while the courtroom erupted in cheers.

President Truman, disgusted by the trial, formed the Civil Rights Commission and later sent the nation’s first comprehensive civil rights bill to Congress. The President then integrated the federal government and banned racial discrimination in the military. While President Truman won the 1948 Presidential election, his courageous actions against discrimination were a major reason he chose not to run for reelection in 1952, fearing that his candidacy would further enflame racial tensions.

Isaac Woodard’s story is little known today, and that’s unfortunate. We need to remember the incidents that became the catalysts for social justice so that we can put them in context of current experiences calling for social justice.

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“I sung The Blinding of Isaac Woodard in the Lewisohn Stadium one night for 36,000 people, and I got the loudest applause I’ve ever got in my whole life.”  – Woody Guthrie

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