Civil Rights Historians tell little known story of WWII vet
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Hours after leaving military service behind in 1946, a decorated African-American World War II veteran still wearing his uniform was removed from a Greyhound bus while heading home, beaten by a white South Carolina police chief and left permanently blind.
Sgt. Isaac Woodard’s brutal encounter with the small-town police official horrified many Americans and prompted cries for justice on behalf of the 26-year-old former soldier. His case even helped spur President Harry Truman’s drive to integrate the U.S. military beginning in 1948.
Now, Woodard’s supporters are seeking to erect a civil rights marker honoring him in the town where he was attacked, saying his ferocious beating helped draw U.S. attention to the discrimination and mistreatment of blacks returning home from war.
He deserves recognition for his place in the struggle for civil rights, they say.
Historians say Woodard’s case — and the outcry it prompted — drove the first cracks into American segregation years ahead of the civil rights era.
“Isaac Woodard was the example of how horrible things were for black Americans, particularly for those coming home” after World War II, said historian Michael Gardner and an expert on the Truman administration.
Shortly after Woodard was honorably discharged from the Army, he was beaten repeatedly and blinded in February 1946 by white police Chief Lynwood Shull in Batesburg, South Carolina. Police accused him of drunken and disorderly conduct. The beating drew the attention of the NAACP, whose representatives met with Truman to discuss the treatment of African-American troops returning to American society.
After little was done about Woodard’s beating for eight months, federal prosecutors ultimately charged Shull with violating Woodard’s civil rights. An all-white jury took less than 30 minutes to find the chief not guilty.
“I was no harsher than was necessary to complete the arrest,” the police chief told The Associated Press in 1946. “I hit him across the front of the head after he attempted to take away my blackjack. I grabbed it away from him and cracked him across the head.”
Woodard was quoted in the same article as lamenting a lack of justice. He also said of the chief: “I have more sympathy for him than he had for me.”
Woodard lived in the Bronx, New York, for the remainder of his life and died in 1992 at age 73.
His supporters now want to erect an historical marker in Woodard’s honor in Batesburg-Leesville, a community of about 5,000 people west of Columbia where Woodard was assaulted.
Former Army Maj. Don North of Carrolton, Georgia, is leading that move. He said he wants the marker to include a Braille inscription in a nod to Woodard’s blindness. North said he was given approval by the South Carolina Historical Marker Program to erect the marker, and is raising money for it.
“I hope the whole country will see Sgt. Woodard in the light of an American hero that changed the way we look at each other,” North said.
Black soldiers returning home from war often resented how they were treated in the U.S. after facing much less discrimination in foreign countries where they were stationed. It made many of them more determined to fight segregation at home, said Marine Sgt. Ed Fizer, a member of the first all-black Marine battalion.
Woodard had enlisted in 1942 and, according to his discharge papers, earned an American Theater Ribbon, Service Medal and Victory Medal for serving during WWII.
But then, as now, many black young men were told: “You ain’t never going to accomplish anything,” said Fizer, a 92-year-old World War II veteran who received the Congressional Gold Medal along with his fellow Montford Point Marines. “The more they spoke like that, the more we hardened our resolve,”
American Studies Professor Andrew Myers at University of South Carolina Upstate said Woodard’s case is important because it showed the roots of the civil rights movement predated the lunch counter sit-ins and bus boycotts of later years.
“Most people thought the movement started in the 1950s with Rosa Parks and Brown v. Board of Education,” Myers said. “It took a generation for a lot of stories of the civil rights movement to percolate to the surface.”
At the time, the uproar over Woodard’s beating drew complaints from those who opposed what they called federal meddling in states’ affairs.
“I’m sick and tired of the federal government butting in on everything,” then-U.S. Sen. Olin D. Johnson said in a 1946 interview with the Associated Press. “We have our own criminal laws and there is never any need for the federal government to take a hand in any cases.”
Andrew Duncan, a professor at Frostburg State University in Maryland, said Woodard’s mistreatment was one of many incidents around the U.S. where “really young men — mostly coming back from the war where they had risked their lives, served their country — came back disrespected on the home front and just (were) smacked down brutally over and over.”
Duncan once lived in Batesburg and had relatives who knew the police chief who beat Woodard. Duncan said he learned about the case decades later after discovering a civil rights book owned by his father.
“That’s when it hit me, I know this guy,” Duncan said. “I started asking relatives about it. I should’ve known about it at 18, but I did decades later.”
Duncan said shame attached to Batesburg’s past prevented the people around him from speaking about the case.
“It’s one thing to be acquitted by an all-white jury and another thing to live with yourself for the next 40-50 years,” Duncan said.