- - Tuesday, February 19, 2019


By Richard Gergel

Sarah Crichton Books/ Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $17, 324 pages

“When Sergeant Isaac Woodard stepped onto the Greyhound bus in Augusta, Georgia on the evening of February 12, 1946, he did not set out to be a hero or martyr for the cause of civil rights. When a white bus driver cursed him in response to his request to step off the bus to relieve himself, Woodard demanded to be treated with respect, boldly declaring, “I am a man, just like you.” Although he was still wearing his nation’s uniform, Woodard had crossed the line for acceptable conduct by a black man. The response to this transgression was unforgiving: removal from the bus, arrest, and a severe beating on the way to the jail [which] left Mr. Woodard blinded.”

The background of the Isaac Woodard case is provided in a number of very fine books, including Richard Kluger’s “Simple Justice,” as well as in award-wining documentaries such as the 14-part series “Eyes on the Prize,” narrated by the civil rights leader Julian Bond.

But those works concentrate on the period of time from the end of World War II to the mid-to-late 1960s. This book, which fills in the historical gap just prior, will appeal to readers interested in law, recent American history and the presidency of Harry Truman.

On Feb. 12, 1946, the day of his discharge, 26-year-old Sgt. Woodard, still in uniform, boarded the bus in Augusta, Georgia, on his way home to Winnsboro, North Carolina, to reunite with his mother and his wife, whom he’d not seen in several years.

When the bus stopped in Batesburg, South Carolina, after the verbal exchange between the two men, the driver got off the bus and to find a police officer and have him arrest Woodard. He found the chief of Batesburg’s two-man police force, Lynwood Lanier Shull, who, accepting without question the driver’s account of the soldier’s behavior, arrested Woodward and started taking him to jail, but not before clubbing him with his blackjack.

In Woodard’s version of the same event, at one point the chief asked him if he’d just been discharged from the Army, and when the returning soldier replied, “yes,” the lawman again beat him with the blackjack, but this time gouging his eyes repeatedly, telling him the correct answer was, “Yes, sir.”

Thanks mainly to the efforts of outsiders, The chief was put on trial and charged with beating and blinding Woodard. The jury of six white men took only 25 minutes to find him not guilty.

The case had a profound effect on two very different men. One man was the trial judge, J. Waties Waring, who wrote a strong dissent in the 2-1 ruling, and the other was World War I veteran Harry S Truman, president of the United States.

The case turned Judge Waring, a highly-respected son of Charleston, South Carolina, into a civil rights advocate whose rulings and dissents so angered the local populace that he and his wife were ostracized socially, their house was fire-bombed and their lives threatened.

As for President Truman, the Woodard case convinced him to take an historic step he’d already been debating with his advisers and seriously contemplating taking — his July 1948 executive order to desegregate the military.

Richard Gergel, a federal judge currently sitting on the same court as did Judge Waring, has the unusual ability to bring history to life, vividly. Of particular interest is his account of the legal maneuvering that led to Brown v. Board of Education.

Giants walk these pages: Judge Waring, Thurgood Marshall, the chief lawyer of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Walter White, the NAACP’s executive secretary, Judge Waring’s wife, Elizabeth and President Truman.

The author’s retelling of the moves by which the combative Truman successfully stood his ground is thrilling, and indicates that a closer look at this integral part of the American struggle for human rights would be both fruitful and rewarding.

As for Isaac Woodard, the decorated veteran who’d thought he was returning from combat to a well-earned deserved better life, he never really recovered. Not wanting to deal with a blind husband, his wife left him; Woodard’s mother later commented bitterly that losing a leg or an arm would have been less devastating. Yet, until his death from cancer at 73, he struggled mightily to remain positive, telling one reporter, “I get by all right, I just can’t see.” In 2014, when Richard Gergel interviewed Julian Bond by telephone, Bond remembered the Woodard case so well that he began to cry, telling Mr. Gergel, “I still weep for that blinded soldier.”

So should we.

• John Greenya, a Washington writer and critic, is the author of “Gorsuch: The Judge Who Speaks For Himself” (Simon and Schuster, 2018).

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