The Blinding of Isaac Woodard
a brutal attack on a war veteran by a racist southern cop led to sweeping civil rights changes
On September 6, 2020, Jacob Blake spoke from his hospital bed after being paralyzed from the waist down from seven shots in his back, fired by a White Kenosha, Wisconsin policeman. “Your life and not only just your life, your legs,” he warned, “something that you need to move around, to move forward in life — can be taken like this, man.”
Isaac Woodard would agree — although it was not his legs, but his eyes that were taken from him. All this Black man wanted was to use the bathroom, and like Blake, his life was also changed in an instant by a short-tempered, racist White cop.
It was February 12, 1946, and Woodard, a 26-year-old Black Army veteran, had been honorably discharged earlier that day and he along with many other veterans were taking a Greyhound bus from Atlanta to Winnsboro, South Carolina to reunite with his wife, Rosa Scruggs Woodard. He had not seen her in almost three years while he heroically served in the Pacific theater in a segregated support unit, earning a battle star for unloading ships under enemy fire in New Guinea, and ultimately rising to the rank of sergeant.
At a stop at a drug store between Augusta and Aiken, Georgia, Woodard asked the bus driver, Alton Blackwell, permission to get off and use the restroom. Blackwell, a White man who was made uncomfortable by the fraternizing between Black and White soldiers on his bus, accused Woodard of being drunk and disruptive, then responded “Hell, no. God damn it, go back and sit down. I ain’t got time to wait.”
Woodard later recalled “He cursed me and said ‘No’ and I cursed him back. Then he told me, ‘Go ahead and get off and hurry back.’ And I did.”
After the brief stop, everything seemed fine on the bus until it pulled into Batesburg, South Carolina. Blackwell got off and found Police Chief Lynwood Shull and anther officer, Elliot Long, sitting nearby in the town’s single patrol car. He told them that two soldiers, one Black and one White, were being drunk and disruptive on his bus and had put him behind schedule, and he wanted them removed. Shull and Long both walked over to the bus and Blackwell went aboard to tell Woodard there was someone who wanted to see him.
As Woodard later recalled, he tried to explain to Shull his heated exchange with the bus driver, and how he was cursed by the driver when he just asked to stop and relieve himself. Before he could complete his explanation, however, Shull removed from a side pocket a blackjack, a type of weighted billy club carried by almost all cops in those days, then struck him across his face, ordering him to “shut up.” A White soldier, Jennings Stroud, later told FBI investigators he witnessed Shull “hit the colored fellow a fairly good lick which did not knock him down, but seemed to show the colored fellow [his] authority.”
Shull placed Woodard under arrest, and as he and Long escorted their prisoner with his arm twisted up behind his back toward the town jail, Woodard testified that Shull asked him if he was discharged from the army. Woodard recalled that when he replied “yes,” Shull immediately beat him again on the head with the blackjack. “The correct answer,” Shull claimed in stereotypical racist Southern sheriff vernacular, “is yes, sir.”
Woodard had enough. After being struck the second time he spun and grabbed the blackjack, wrestling it away from Shull. Officer Long withdrew his revolver and pointed it in Woodard’s face, ordering him to “Drop your weapon — or I will drop you.”
Woodard complied with Long’s order, dropping the blackjack on the ground. Then, an enraged Shull scooped it up and began mercilessly beating Woodard with it until he was knocked unconscious. When he awakened shortly after that, Shull hoisted him to his feet then repeatedly began jamming Woodard in both eyes with the handle of the blackjack, over and over, until the handle actually snapped off. After the beating, Woodard was dragged in a semiconscious haze into the Batesburg jail and left in a cell. Shull and Long then left for the evening.
The next morning, Woodard couldn’t see.
Despite his blindness, Woodard, charged with disorderly conduct, was hauled before Judge (and town mayor) H.E. Quarles. Court officers could not deny that Woodard had been grotesquely injured — both eyes were completely black and swollen shut. Still, in various conflicting trial testimonies (at this trial and later in statements to the FBI), Shull initially denied beating Woodard with his blackjack or driving the handle of it into his eyes. He later amended his statements, contradicting himself in trying to explain the circumstances leading to the use of the blackjack, the number of times he beat Woodard, or the parts of his body struck. Shull did claim Woodard had been inebriated, and difficult to control. Witnesses from the bus, however, testified that Woodard had not been drinking.
Regardless, Judge Quarles promptly found Woodard guilty after it was proven that the Black man had taken the blackjack away from Shull, in his opinion an unforgivable offense. According to trial transcripts, he stated “We don’t have that kind of stuff down here.” He then fined Woodard $50 or “30 days hard labor on the road.” Woodard explained he only had $44 on him, so he was taken back to jail. Soon afterward the court accepted Woodard’s money, but being blinded and now broke (except for an army discharge check for $673), he had no way to leave town.
Later that evening he was examined by the town doctor, W. W. King, who concluded that Woodard “had serious damage to both eyes” and “was badly in need of a specialist.” Shull then drove him to the veterans’ hospital in Columbia, telling the check-in attendant that Woodard had “suffered his injuries as a result of an encounter with a police officer after being arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct.”
At the VA, Captain Arthur Clancy documented the profound damage done to Woodard’s eyes at the hands of Shull. Both of his eyelids were hemorrhaging, and his right cornea was lacerated. Worse, he found both globes had been irreparably ruptured. Later, Clancy confirmed that Woodard was permanently blind and that there was no available treatment. Woodard was admitted, and remained in the hospital for two months.
And it just gets worse
But this was just the start of Woodard’s troubles. While he was hospitalized, VA staff applied on his behalf for disability benefits. But there was a major problem — Woodard was no longer active duty; he had been discharged five hours before suffering his horrific injuries at the hands of Shull. Therefore, since he was still in uniform and had not yet reached home, VA rules disqualified him from full benefits, restricting him to a partial disability benefit of only $50 per month — nowhere close to a livable benefit.
Meanwhile, Woodard’s wife (who lived in Winnsford, SC) and his family (who had relocated to New York) had no idea what had happened to him and reported him missing. They eventually found him about two weeks later at the South Carolina VA. Adding insults to even more injuries, Woodard’s wife Rosa decided she did not want to spend the rest of her life as a caregiver to a blind man and abandoned him.
After his discharge on April 13 (with his only discharge orders “enroll in a blind school”), Woodard was taken by his sisters and mother to New York. Having no training or experience with living while blind, he lurched through the strange apartment, lost and confused, telling his mother “My head feels like it’s going to burst …” He did get an appointment with a Manhattan Ophthalmologist named Dr. Chester Chinn, who examined him but declared his situation “hopeless.”
Sergeant Isaac Woodard, who had proudly served his country for three years, found himself, at age 27, blinded, unemployed, separated from his wife, and drawing a pathetic, unlivable VA pension. Things indeed seemed hopeless.
They Woke Up the Wrong Man
It wasn’t until mid-July, 1946 that the story of Isaac Woodard began gaining traction in the press. The NAACP in particular took notice but were stymied in their efforts to get the complete story of what had exactly transpired between Woodard and Shull. Even the VA hospital in Columbia was not forthcoming with information.
The Woodard blinding began receiving national publicity when executive NAACP Secretary Walter White took the case to actor and radio star Orson Welles, explaining that the case deserved special publicity. Agreeing with White, Orson Welles took Woodard’s affidavit and information provided him by the NAACP and broadcast five remarkable 15-minute CBS radio monologues about the case.
“He [Shull] was just another white man with a stick, who wanted to teach a negro boy a lesson,” Welles stated in the first episode after reading aloud Woodard’s affidavit in his powerful, mellifluous voice, “to show a negro boy where he belonged … in the darkness.”
Welles went on to admonish Shull, whom he called Officer X because at the time he didn’t know his name. “Wash your hands, Officer X. Wash them well. Scrub and scour, you won’t blot out the blood of a blinded war veteran. Wash a lifetime, you’ll never wash away that leprous lack of pigment. The guilty pallor of the white man.”
Welles mistakenly claimed in the first broadcast, however, that Woodard was beaten in Aiken, South Carolina. This prompted the infuriated citizens of Aiken to ban his movies, burn the posters in the street, and hang the actor in effigy. They also threatened him with a $2 million lawsuit, which was never filed.
The broadcasts, along with the untiring advocacy of the NAACP began having a remarkable impact. On September 19 an “outraged” Truman administration met with NAACP Executive Director White and representatives of the National Emergency Committee Against Mob Violence, which had formed in response to both Woodard’s case and a horrendous lynching of two married couples in Georgia, to create the President’s Committee on Civil Rights (PCCR).
When a Mayor and a City Marshal can take a negro Sergeant off a bus in South Carolina, beat him up and put out his eyes, and nothing is done about it by the State authorities, something is radically wrong with the system.
-President Harry S. Truman
In addition to Orson Welles, other celebrities came to the aid of Isaac Woodard. Calypso performer Lord Invader recorded an anti-racism song entitled “God Made Us All” for his album “Calypso at Midnight.” Heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis spoke out in a public speech at Lewisohn Stadium, saying that “Nobody in America should have to go through second class citizenship. Me and a whole lot of Black guys went out fighting for the American cause, now we’re going have to get America to give us our civil rights too. We earned them.” On August 28, Welles appeared at one of several benefit concerts for Woodard in New York City. There, before 36,000 people, Woody Guthrie sang a song he had composed, called “The Blinding of Isaac Woodard.”
The song concluded “I thought I fought on the islands to get rid of their kind … But I can see the fight lots plainer now that I am blind.” These and fund-raising efforts organized by the NAACP, along with an eventual doubling of his monthly VA benefit, provided a small pension for Woodard, helping him attend the recommended “blind school.”
A lawsuit filed against the Greyhound Bus Company went nowhere.
The case against Shull
On September 26, when it became obvious that South Carolina was not going to pursue justice against Chief of Police Lynwood Lanier Shull, the publicity from Welles’ broadcasts and pressure from the NAACP resulted in federal charges filed against Shull by Attorney General Tom C. Clark. Shull was accused of having “beaten and tortured” Isaac Woodard, Jr., “in violation of a Federal Civil Rights Statute, which prohibits police and other public officials from depriving anyone of rights ‘secured by the Constitution and the laws of the United States.’” Shull was also charged with the violation of Woodard’s “right and privilege not to be beaten and tortured by persons exercising the authority to arrest.”
Shull was tried in October 1946 under Judge J. Waties Waring of Charleston. It was a sham of a trial, and despite Shull’s inconsistencies and outright falsehoods uttered under oath, the all-White jury after 30 minutes deliberation not surprisingly found him innocent of violating Woodard’s civil rights. At the announcement of the verdict, the courtroom erupted into applause.
Woodard cried when he learned of his attacker’s verdict.
Long term effect
Despite the jury’s ruling, Judge Waring was mortified by the handling and processes of the case, stating “I was shocked by the hypocrisy of my government … in submitting that disgraceful case …” The case so greatly influenced him on racial injustice awareness that he devoted the remainder of his time on the bench to correcting these issues, including his famous dissent in Briggs v. Elliott, a 1951 school segregation case which became one of four cases decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. Also, President Truman admitted that it was the Woodard case that strongly influenced him to desegregate the military in 1948.
Shull — Officer X — was never prosecuted or charged again for his blinding of Isaac Woodard, or for any of his transgressions committed against Batesburg Blacks during his tenure as sheriff. He died in Batesburg on December 27, 1997, at age 95, surrounded by his family.
By 1978 Isaac Woodard Jr. had adapted to his blindness and even purchased a three-bedroom home in the Bronx with a VA loan. He died at age 73 on September 23, 1992, in the Veterans Administration hospital in the Bronx after a variety of health problems, including prostate cancer. He was buried with military honors at the Calverton National Cemetery in Calverton, New York.
Woodard’s drunk and disorderly conviction was vacated in 2018, and in 2019 the town of Batesburg-Leesville unveiled a historical marker dedicated to him. Appropriately, the bottom part is in braille.
As evidenced by the current racial reckoning in the wake of Jacob Blake and so many others, little seems to have changed since the Woodard blinding, with unarmed Black men still disproportionately injured and killed at the hands of White police. Blake in 2020 echoed the sentiments of his predecessor in police brutality: “It hurts to breathe. It hurts to sleep. It hurts to move side to side. It hurts to eat,” he pronounced of his mistreatment at the hands of his own Officer X, Rusten Sheskey. “You do not want to have to deal with this … Please I’m telling you change your lives out there … make everything easier for our people.”
“It’s now you’ve heard my story, there’s one thing I can’t see,
How you could treat a human like they have treated me;
I thought I fought on the islands to get rid of their kind;
But I can see the fight lots plainer now that I am blind.”
-Woody Guthrie, “The Blinding of Isaac Woodard,” 1946.