Cover image for Unexampled courage : the blinding of Sgt. Isaac Woodard and the awakening of President Harry S. Truman and Judge J. Waties Waring
Unexampled courage : the blinding of Sgt. Isaac Woodard and the awakening of President Harry S. Truman and Judge J. Waties Waring
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019.

Physical Description:
324 pages 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustraions ; 24 cm
Introduction: A collision of two worlds -- Part I: The blinding. A tragic detour ; A wave of terror ; "The place was Batesburg" ; The bystander government -- Part II: The awakening. "My God... we have to do something" ; The Isaac Woodard road show ; The gradualist ; A "baptism in racial prejudice" -- Part III: The call to action. "I shall fight to end evil like this" ; "We know the way. We need only the will" ; Confronting the American dilemma ; There will be no fines ; Fighting the "battle royal" ; Driving the "last nail in the coffin of segregation" -- Conclusion: Unexampled courage.
"Sergeant Isaac Woodard, a battlefield-decorated African American soldier, climbed aboard a Greyhound bus on February 12, 1946, in Augusta, Georgia, on his last leg home after three years of military service. Things suddenly went awry when a brief heated exchange with the bus driver resulted in Woodard's removal from the bus and his arrest in the small town of Batesburg, South Carolina. Shortly after the Batesburg police chief, Lynwood Shull, took Woodard into custody, he beat the soldier with his blackjack, blinding him. Details of Woodard's tragic encounter soon reached President Harry S. Truman. Outraged by the treatment of a uniformed American soldier, Truman wrote to his attorney general and made it clear that there was a need for an effective federal response. Within days, criminal civil rights charges were brought against Shull in the federal district court in South Carolina and Truman began establishing the first presidential committee on civil rights. Truman's committee recommended groundbreaking reforms, including ending segregation in the armed forces. On July 26, 1948, Truman, over vigorous opposition, issued Executive Order 9981, integrating the American military and marking the beginning of the end of Jim Crow. Shull was tried before United States District Judge J. Waties Waring, a Charleston patrician whose father was a Confederate veteran. An all-white jury quickly acquitted Shull, but Judge Waring was conscience-stricken by the failure of the justice system to hold the obviously culpable police chief accountable. Waring soon began issuing landmark civil rights decisions that rocked his native state and challenged the foundations of racial segregation and of black disenfranchisement. His courageous dissent in a 1951 school desegregation case, in which he declared segregation per se unconstitutional, became the model for the Supreme Court's unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education three years later. Richard Gergel's [book] details the long-overlooked story of the blinding of Sergeant Woodard and its transformative effect on President Truman, Judge Waring, and, ultimately, America's civil rights history. This is a story that deserves to be told, with all its pathos, its brutality, and its redemption of the American system of justice."--Dust jacket.

"A nonfiction book detailing the case of Isaac Woodard, its influence on Judge J. Waties Waring, and how Waring went on to lay the groundwork for landmark civil rights rulings"-- Provided by publisher.


Material Type
Call Number
Book 323.119 Gerge
Book 323.119 Gerge
Book 323.119 Gerge
Book 323.119 Gerge
Book 323.119 Gerge
Book 323.119 Gerge

On Order



How the blinding of Sergeant Isaac Woodard changed the course of America's civil rights history

On February 12, 1946, Sergeant Isaac Woodard, a returning, decorated African American veteran, was removed from a Greyhound bus in Batesburg, South Carolina, after he challenged the bus driver's disrespectful treatment of him. Woodard, in uniform, was arrested by the local police chief, Lynwood Shull, and beaten and blinded while in custody.

President Harry Truman was outraged by the incident. He established the first presidential commission on civil rights and his Justice Department filed criminal charges against Shull. In July 1948, following his commission's recommendation, Truman ordered an end to segregation in the U.S. armed forces. An all-white South Carolina jury acquitted Shull, but the presiding judge, J. Waties Waring, was conscience-stricken by the failure of the court system to do justice by the soldier. Waring described the trial as his "baptism of fire," and began issuing major civil rights decisions from his Charleston courtroom, including his 1951 dissent in Briggs v. Elliott declaring public school segregation per se unconstitutional. Three years later, the Supreme Court adopted Waring's language and reasoning in Brown v. Board of Education . Richard Gergel's Unexampled Courage details the impact of the blinding of Sergeant Woodard on the racial awakening of President Truman and Judge Waring, and traces their influential roles in changing the course of America's civil rights history.

Author Notes

Richard Gergel is a United States district judge who presides in the same courthouse in Charleston, South Carolina, where Judge Waring once served. A native of Columbia, South Carolina, Judge Gergel earned undergraduate and law degrees from Duke University. With his wife, Dr. Belinda Gergel, he is the author of In Pursuit of the Tree of Life: A History of the Early Jews of Columbia, South Carolina .

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

In this enlightening study, judge and historian Gergel illuminates the far-reaching effects of an individual act of cruelty. Gergel lays out the terrible racial logic that led from decorated WWII veteran Isaac Woodard's innocuous request that the driver of his Greyhound bus allow him a rest stop to him permanently losing his eyesight after South Carolina police chief Lynwood Shull assaulted him with a blackjack in 1946. When NAACP leader Walter White brought Woodard's case to President Truman's attention, the latter, aware that this was far from an isolated instance of racist violence, responded: "We have got to do something." Truman created the first presidential committee on civil rights, whose investigations led, by 1948, to the desegregation of the nation's armed forces, a crucial precedent to the reforms of the next two decades. Meanwhile, in South Carolina, an all-white jury acquitted Shull; this outcome so appalled the presiding judge, Waties Waring, that he became a civil rights crusader in the heart of the former Confederacy. Gergel's prose is workmanlike, and he narrates this story in greater detail than some readers may desire, but this is an important work on the prehistory of the civil rights struggle and an insightful account of how a single incident can inspire massive social and political changes. Agent: Lisa Adams, Garamond Agency. (Jan.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Booklist Review

On February 12, 1946, Sergeant Isaac Woodard, a decorated African American veteran, was returning to his South Carolina home on a Greyhound bus following his discharge from army service. After a seemingly minor dispute with the bus driver over a bathroom stop, the unruly Woodard was removed from the bus and beaten by the local police chief. This was an unexceptional event in the Jim Crow South. After several days, however, it became apparent that the severity of the blows had permanently blinded Woodard. This sparked national outrage. Consequently, President Truman established a commission on civil rights, and the Justice Department filed criminal charges against the police chief (who was acquitted by an all-white jury). In 1948, Truman desegregated the U.S. armed forces. Both the African American press and the NAACP were energized to intensify efforts to keep civil rights issues and violence against blacks before the public eye. Gergel presents a compelling account of a case that helped point the way for broader, more intense, and more effective efforts in the civil rights movement.--Jay Freeman Copyright 2018 Booklist

New York Review of Books Review

in "reconstruction," an essay published in 1866, Frederick Douglass argued that even as radical Republicans (former abolitionists and their supporters) gained control over America's constitutional revolution, this might not matter "while there remains such an idea as the right of each state to control its own local affairs," a notion "more deeply rooted in the minds of men ... than perhaps any one other political idea." What had to be done, Douglass said, was to "render the rights of the states compatible with the sacred rights of human nature." As "Unexampled Courage," Richard Gergel's remarkable book about the early legal stages of the civil rights movement, makes clear, Douglass's thrilling goal of natural rights and federal power combining to overwhelm states' rights remained for nearly a century an unrealized dream. Perhaps it still is. White supremacy represents another set of ideas that Americans have never conquered. Gergel's book is a revealing window into both the hideous racial violence and humiliation of segregation in the period immediately after World War II, and the heroic origins of the legal crusade to destroy Jim Crow. Gergel, a United States district judge in South Carolina who presided in the Dylann Roof trial in 2017, has written an engrossing history, animated by the stories of several key characters. The book demonstrates not only the viciousness of the Jim Crow system but also shows just how profoundly entrenched were the racism and states' rights tradition faced by Thurgood Marshall and his team of N.A.A.C.P. lawyers in their incremental legal efforts to defeat the American apartheid. Gergel frames his story with the 1946 beating and blinding of Sgt. Isaac Woodard, a young African-American soldier returning home from the Pacific war. Traveling through South Carolina on a Greyhound bus, Woodard, still in uniform, was forced off in the town of Batesburg for alleged misbehavior. There, the local police chief, Lynwood Shull, bludgeoned him with a blackjack, gouging his eyes and permanently blinding him. Such wanton violence was part of a larger pattern of attacks on some of the 900,000 returning black veterans. Permanently disabled, Woodard moved to the Bronx, and for a while traveled as a celebrity victim of racist violence under the sponsorship of the N.A.A.C.P. Orson Welles publicized Woodard's case on his radio show, helping to incite widespread demand for Shull's prosecution. Woodard's story recedes as Gergel recounts the history of the book's two other central characters: Judge J. Waties Waring, who presided in Shull's trial, and President Harry S. Truman. This strategy is largely effective, although some of the socioeconomic and Cold War contexts to which this great legal saga owes much go undeveloped. Waring occupied the same Charleston courthouse that Gergel now does; he is Gergel's hero, and deservedly so, despite the fact that our current historical moment may not allow much room for white champions of civil rights. Drawing on Waring's papers, rich oral histories, F.B.I. records, Richard Kluger's classic work "Simple Justice" and Caryl Phillips's lyrical treatment of Waring in his book "The Atlantic Sound," among other works of civil rights scholarship, Gergel paints a vivid portrait of Waring and his second wife, Elizabeth, a Northern import to Charleston who eventually became an outspoken critic of segregation. Waring, born in 1880, was a Charleston patrician whose ancestors were slaveholders and whose father was a Confederate soldier. He had long been a Southern Democrat and tacit supporter of segregation until after he was appointed a federal judge in 1942 and confronted cases bearing evidence of Jim Crow's brutal handiwork. The judge had read the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause and come to the realization, he said, that he could either remain "entirely governed by the doctrine of white supremacy," or be "a federal judge and decide the law." He began to explore a different history of Reconstruction than the one most other white South Carolinians knew, drawing inspiration especially from Gunnar Myrdal's 1,400-page study, "An American Dilemma." Beginning in 1944, in Duvall v. Seignous, when Waring issued a consent decree providing equal pay for a black teacher, he presided over a series of cases that ultimately helped pave the road for the Brown v. Board decision of 1954. In 1945, in Thompson v. Gibbes, another pay-equity case, Waring explicitly overruled states' rights, declaring that a state "cannot deprive the federal courts of jurisdiction granted them under the Constitution." In November 1946, Shull stood trial in Waring's courtroom. Gergel provides a detailed account of the incompetent and racist lawyering conducted by the government's attorneys. Woodard's testimony profoundly affected Waring and his wife, forcing them, Gergel writes, to "stare into the Southern racial abyss" as never before. Nevertheless, Shull was acquitted quickly by an all-white jury, with the defense counsel warning that if a "decision against the government means seceding, then let South Carolina secede again." Waring called the trial's travesty of justice his "baptism of fire." Gergel intersperses the Waring and Woodard narratives with chapters on President Truman's own coming-to-conscience on civil rights. The turning point for Truman, who came from a Missouri family steeped in Confederate culture, seems to have been a conversation at the White House in September 1946 with the N.A.A.C.P. leader Walter White, who related the details of Woodard's blinding. The next day, Truman wrote to his attorney general to request the formation of a presidential committee on civil rights. Over the following two years, he gave a stunning speech on racial equality at the Lincoln Memorial, desegregated the military by executive order and released the committee's report, "To Secure These Rights," declaring a dire need for federal intervention to overcome all manner of racial discrimination. Truman's actions sent shock waves among Southern Democrats and led to the formation of the Dixiecrats in the presidential campaign of 1948. Back in Charleston, Waring continued to rule against peonage and the Democrats' white primaries. He and his wife were vilified, and the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross at their home, an incident that garnered national press coverage. Both Warings made public statements during this painful saga, the judge declaring that it was time for South Carolina to "rejoin the Union," as he threatened to jail white men for preventing black people from voting. Gergel brings his riveting narrative to a climax with the Briggs v. Elliott case of 1951. This school segregation suit from rural Clarendon County brought hundreds of black citizens to Waring's court for the first time, and though the three-judge panel ruled 2 to 1 in favor of sustaining "separate" schools, Waring's famous dissent, arguing that "segregation is per se inequality," eventually led the N.A.A.C.P. to mount a frontal assault at the Supreme Court against the Plessy doctrine of "separate but equal." The great value of "Unexampled Courage" is that it might garner a broad audience for the kinds of heroism involved in this history of litigation, all of which was a necessary prelude to the direct-action crusade of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s. Gergel may place too much emphasis on individual agency in this story, but it is impossible to deny the pivotal role of these figures: Harry and Eliza Briggs and the Rev. Joseph DeLaine, the plaintiffs in Briggs, who risked all and lost their jobs; the titanic Marshall and his lawyerly activists, who assembled a mountain of facts to overwhelm Jim Crow's wiliest ways; a depressed, blinded Isaac Woodard, who lived out his life mostly on charity in the Bronx; a president from a neo-Confederate corner of Missouri; and, finally, a judge who committed treason to his race and class to try to move the South into modernity. Would that Chief Justice John Roberts and his four fellow conservative justices might read this riveting legal history and rethink the decision in Shelby v. Holder of 2013, which eviscerated federal oversight of voting rights in the Deep South. But while we wait for that unlikelihood, we should remember that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed because of the history Gergel recounts. When Waring met Truman at the White House in 1948, they shared their memories of learning about Woodard's blinding. Then Waring told the president that most white South Carolinians "will not voluntarily do anything along the lines suggested by you," and that it was "necessary for the federal government to firmly and constantly keep up the pressure." We live in a nation still stymied by the tradition of states' rights and by racism. Equality, especially the right to vote, is still at the mercy of local beliefs and practices. In 1956, James Baldwin reminded us why we have laws: "It is easy to proclaim all souls equal in the sight of God; it is hard to make men equal on earth in the sight of men."

Library Journal Review

When returning home from his tour in World War II, Sgt. Isaac Woodard was brutally beaten and blinded by the police chief of Batesburg, SC, for allegedly not showing the due respect to a white bus driver by an African American in the Jim Crow South. Gergel, a U.S. District Judge in South Carolina and coauthor of Pursuit of the Tree of Life, offers a fascinating historical and legal investigation of this event and how it ignited the postwar civil rights movement. The Woodard incident shocked President Harry Truman and Judge J. Waties Waring, both of whom, along with Woodard, displayed "the unexampled courage," says Gergel, essential to ensuring African Americans their constitutional rights. Truman, constrained by powerful Southern legislators, used his appointment power and executive orders to desegregate the armed forces and to create the President's Committee on Civil Rights. Waring evolved from a judicial gradualist into a civil rights advocate, whose opinions became the leading arguments for the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that outlawed school segregation. VERDICT ­Gergel reintroduces oft-forgotten civil rights heroes in this captivating, deeply researched work that is likely to draw in general readers, historians, and legal scholars alike.-Karl Helicher, formerly with Upper Merion Twp. Lib., King of Prussia, PA © Copyright 2019. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Table of Contents

Introduction: A Collision of Two Worldsp. 3
Part I The Blinding
1 A Tragic Detourp. 9
2 A Wave of Terrorp. 24
3 "The Place Was Batesburg"p. 38
4 The Bystander Governmentp. 48
Part II The Awakening
5 "My God ... We Have Got to Do Something"p. 63
6 The Isaac Woodard Road Showp. 84
7 The Gradualistp. 93
8 A "Baptism In Racial Prejudice"p. 114
Part III The Call to Action
9 "I Shall Fight to End Evil Like This"p. 135
10 "We Know the Way We Need Only the Will."p. 160
11 Confronting the American Dilemmap. 171
12 There Will Be No Finesp. 189
13 Fighting the "Battle Royal"p. 200
14 Driving the "Last Nail in the Coffin of Segregation"p. 221
Conclusion: Unexampled Couragep. 249
Appendix: A Forensic Analysis of the Blinding of Isaac Woodardp. 271
Notesp. 275
Acknowledgmentsp. 305
Indexp. 309