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

By Brian W. Tyson

When Judge Richard Gergel took the podium to speak about his book to the National Board of Directors at the American Board of Trial Advocates’ first meeting of the year in Charleston, South Carolina, on January 18, 2020, there was no way to know the troubles that would unfold in the United States later this year.

COVID-19 became a global pandemic in March and is still a deadly presence. Then, on May 25, Minneapolis police officers arrested George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, after a convenience store employee called 911 and told the police that Mr. Floyd had bought cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill. A short time later, Mr. Floyd was pinned beneath three police officers, showing no signs of life. Bystander videos captured the incident that showed the officer’s knee pressed on Mr. Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes. Mr. Floyd died, triggering peaceful and violent protests around the world. 

It is on this backdrop that we look back on Judge Gergel’s presentation to the National Board and see the unfortunate similarities — 75 years later. In addition, it was five years ago in October 2015 that Luther J. Battiste, III, delivered a speech — also delivered in Charleston to the National Board — regarding the “Tribute to the Emanuel AME Church Nine” after the June 17, 2015, murders of nine African Americans at the Mother Emmanuel AME Church on Calhoun Street in Charleston. Mr. Battiste was friends with many of those killed and he knew Joseph Roof, a Columbia, South Carolina, lawyer who was the grandfather of the killer. Judge Gergel was the presiding judge for the 2017 trial. To this day Judge Gergel has not commented on the trial.

Before addressing the National Board in January, Chief Justice Donald W. Beatty, Chief Justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court, highlighted the career of Judge Gergel and his recent book, Unexampled Courage: The Blinding of Sgt. Isaac Woodard and the Awakening of President Harry S. Truman and Judge J. Waties Waring. Justice Beatty recapped the success of the book, the overlooked history of the events, the investigative reporting, and an insightful account of how a single incident can inspire massive social and political changes.

Looking back, the George Floyd death was less than five months away. When the book was released, National Public Radio named it the 2019 Best Book of the Year. From NPR:

“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.”

The book has grown in significance. In the June 25, 2020, issue of The New York Times the editors prepared a compilation of books described as “the most profound social upheaval since the 1960s. More than 20 novelists, historians, poets, comedians and activists take a moment to look back to the literature.” Judge Gergel’s book was among the featured writers.

From The New York Times: “Unexampled Courage (2019) by Richard Gergel, is a remarkable book. In clear and elegant prose, Gergel — a United States district judge in South Carolina — strips legal cases of jargon and presents them as what they essentially are: human drama. The result is intellectually and emotionally satisfying. The author’s loving admiration of Judge J. Waties Waring — who descended from slave-owning Confederates, but turned his back on “the doctrine of white supremacy” in his courtroom — is obvious, but the evidence for it is rendered so dispassionately that it feels apt. As I finished it I felt deeply moved all around, but mostly by the incredible courage of the ordinary Black Americans in the 1951 Briggs v. Elliott case, over school segregation. Meticulously researched and full of heart, this book is important at this time when the United States is confronting its everpresent past.” — Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, novelist and essayist, The New York Times, June 25, 2020

At the end of his presentation on January 18 in the ballroom of Charleston’s Hotel Bennett Judge Gergel answered questions and signed every book until the last ABOTA member in line moved on. I’m appreciative that he signed my book, “To Brian: May we all show Unexampled Courage. Richard Gergel.” His note was much welcome at the time, but honestly, with the busy schedule of a National Board Meeting in tow, his words didn’t resonate until a few days ago when I opened my book and read those words again. The research and writing of Unexampled Courage has made it a timely book . . . unfortunately again.

About the author: Judge 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.