Sgt. Isaac Woodard, blind from a racially motivated beating, helped by two men

Episode 7 – A Dangerous, Costly and Heartbreaking Process

"To The Best of My Ability" Podcast Series

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About the Episode

On February 12, 1946, Sgt. Isaac Woodard was returning home to North Carolina from Camp Gordon in Augusta, GA on a Greyhound bus. Woodard, a decorated veteran of the Pacific theater, asked the driver if there was time for him to use the restroom while on a scheduled stop. The driver grudgingly agreed, and the trip continued without incident until they reached Batesburg, SC, where the driver called local authorities and had Woodard arrested. What followed was one of the nation’s most heinous hate crimes, and the attack left Woodard permanently blind. The attack committed by law enforcement was the first of several that would occur in the weeks and months after World War II. Just two weeks later, another veteran of the Pacific theater, James Stephenson, was nearly killed in an attempted lynching after shopkeepers called police and accused Stephenson of “disturbing the peace.” The attack on Stephenson resulted in riots breaking out all over Columbia, Tennessee, as mobs led by white supremacists targeted and attacked black residents.

This week’s episode, hosted by the Museum’s Dr. Kristen Burton and written by digital content manager Bert Hidalgo, processes the attacks on Woodard and other veterans through the lens of influential radio personality Orson Welles, who risked angering both regular listeners and law enforcement with his broadcasts, which condemned the attack on Woodard and called for prosecution of the officers responsible. Welles, who worked alongside executive NAACP secretary Walter Francis White to gain information to use in the broadcasts, eventually named Woodard’s attacker on air: Chief of Police Lynwood Shull. Shull was put on trial and was ultimately acquitted by the all-white jury. Deliberation lasted just 30 minutes.

In writing about these crimes and attempts to hold the attackers accountable, poet and activist Langston Hughes deemed the quest for justice, “a dangerous, costly and heartbreaking process.”

New episodes are released every other Friday. Catch up on all episodes of “To the Best of My Ability” and be sure to leave us a review on your favorite podcast platform.

Select music for this episode was provided by Kevin MacLeod.

Topics Covered in this Episode

  • The attack on Sgt. Isaac Woodard
  • NAACP Attorney Thurgood Marshall
  • Orson Welles on the Air
  • Woody Guthrie’s “The Blinding of Isaac Woodard”
  • Truman’s Council on Civil Rights
  • Executive Order 9981 and the desegregation of the US Armed Forces

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Featured Historian

Matthew Delmont, PhD

Matthew Delmont, PhD is the Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Professor of History at Dartmouth College. He is author of the upcoming book, Half American: The Epic Story of African Americans Fighting World War II at Home and Abroad, which will be published by Viking Books in 2022.  He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Public Scholar Award to support this book. An expert on African-American History and the history of Civil Rights, he is the author four previous books: Black Quotidian: Everyday History in African American Newspapers (Stanford University Press, 2019); Making Roots: A Nation Captivated (University of California Press, 2016); Why Busing Failed: Race, Media, and the National Resistance to School Desegregation (UC Press, 2016); and The Nicest Kids in Town: American Bandstand, Rock 'n' Roll, and the Struggle for Civil Rights in 1950s Philadelphia (UC Press, 2012).  In addition to these books, he regularly shares his research with media outlets, including the New York Times, NPR, The Atlantic, and the Washington Post.

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"To the Best of My Ability" is part of an ongoing series commemorating the 75th Anniversary of the End of World War II made possible by The Nierenberg Family.


Archival Audio - Orson Welles on the Air

[Orson Welles speaking]

All the affidavits from all the policemen in the world won’t protest his eyes back in his head. Somebody. Somebody who called themselves an officer of the law beat that boy with a stick till he lost his sight. Now that somebody is nobody, he’s vanished, he’s never been heard of, he doesn’t have any name. Well. He’s going to be heard of. The blind soldier has my promise of that. That somebody is going to be named.

Editorials. Lots of newspapers. Lots of people are writing me. To demand to know what business it is of mine. God judge me if it isn't the most pressing business I have.

The blind soldier fought for me in this war, the least I can do now is fight for him. I have eyes, he hasn’t. I have a voice on the radio, he hasn’t. I was born a white man. And until a colored man is a full citizen like me. I hadn’t the leisure to enjoy the freedom that colored man risked his life to maintain for me.

Dr. Kristen Burton

On February 12, 1946, WWII veteran, Sgt. Isaac Woodard, was left blind after a vicious attack by a white South Carolina police chief in what was an all too common scene for many black veterans returning from the war. Inundated by public pressure, following a radio broadcast by Orson Welles, President Truman ordered a federal investigation. Despite a national outcry and the push from Truman to bring the attacker to justice, the perpetrator was acquitted by an all white jury.

Woodard’s and many other such stories experienced by black Americans sparked public outrage and a discussion about race relations in America. President Truman personally struggled with the decision on how to approach Civil Rights, but he eventually issued Executive Order 9981, which ended segregation in the military, the first federal branch to do so. However, that decision did not come without political consequences from the Dixiecrat south, threatening Truman’s re-election bid and splitting the Democratic Party.

Archival Audio - Truman Taking the Oath of Office

“I Harry S. Truman do solemnly swear to faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, so help me God.”

Dr. Kristen Burton

You’re listening to “To the Best of My Ability: The Post War Years” from The National WWII Museum in New Orleans. This is episode 7, “A Dangerous, Costly and Heartbreaking Process.” I’m your host, Dr. Kristen Burton. This week, Sgt. Isaac Woodard is left blinded by a racially-motivated attack committed by law enforcement, sending shockwaves around the country as more attacks on black veterans followed.

Joining us is Dr. Matthew Delmont, Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Professor of History at Dartmouth College and author of the upcoming book Half American: The Epic Story of African Americans Fighting World War II at Home and Abroad.

Dr. Matthew Delmont

Isaac Woodard's military career is really pretty typical for a black man. He enlisted in October of 1942 as a twenty-three-year-old, and he trained at Fort Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina. He served in the Pacific Theater in a labor battalion as a longshoreman. He’s eventually promoted to sergeant. But that kind of labor work was very typical for how black soldiers served during the war. So his story is really an archetypal one. This wasn't technically a combat role, but he was unloading ships under enemy fire in New Guinea. So he saw war action, even if he wasn't in a frontline combat role. So he's not the kind of soldier that makes it in the movies, but the kind of unsung role that black troops really played throughout the war. So after the war, he was honorably discharged in February of 1946, and after he was discharged, he was on a Greyhound bus home going from Camp Gordon in Augusta, Georgia, traveling to his family home in North Carolina. There is some dispute with the bus driver. He wanted to get off the bus to go to use the rest stop and go to the bathroom. The bus driver accused him of drinking in the back of the bus. But when they got to a town called Batesburg, South Carolina, the bus driver stopped the bus and calls the local police who come and take Woodard off of the bus. They bring him in an ally and just start beating him with their nightsticks, beat him up pretty severely, and then arrest him, accuse him of disorderly conduct, accuse him of being drunk on the bus. They get him back to the station and the beating continues. The police chief is using his nightstick and uses the butt end of it to essentially gouge out—to make very severe damage into his eye sockets. It ends up blinding him.

That kind of abuse by police and other authorities of black veterans and black citizens more generally wasn't at all uncommon during the war or after the war, but the type of violence and the fact that Woodard was blinded by it really stuck out.

Dr. Kristen Burton

The following morning the police brought Woodard in front of a local judge who found him guilty, fining him $50. It would take some days before Woodard was taken to a nearby Veterans Administration Hospital where it was confirmed that he was permanently blind. The discharging doctors’ recommendation? That he should attend a school for the blind.

Dr. Matthew Delmont

So the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is really the leading civil rights organization in this era. They grow a tremendous number of branches and numbers over the course of the war, and they were just fighting constantly throughout the war for black troops and for black veterans. They really lead the effort to publicize Woodard’s case. They're working usually hand in hand with the black press. African-America press across the country tried to publicize cases of this kind of violence that particularly black troops and black veterans would experience. So those were traditional. Those happened for almost all these cases and there was no exception for Woodard. And the thing that helps Woodard's case breakthrough to a larger audience is when Orson Welles tells the story on his ABC radio show.

Archival Audio - Orson Welles on the Air

Good Morning this is Orson Welles speaking. I’d like to read you an Affidavit.

I, Isaac Woodard Jr., being duly sworn to depose and state as follows. That I’m twenty-seven years old and a veteran of the United States Army having served for fifteen months in the South Pacific and earned one battle star. I was honorably discharged on February 12th 1946 in Camp Gordon, GA. At 8:30 pm at the great terminal at Atlanta GA while I was in uniform I purchased a ticket to Winnsboro South Carolina and took the bus headed there to pick up my wife to come to New York to see my father and mother. About one hour out of Atlanta the bus driver stopped at a small drug store. As he stopped I asked him if he had time to wait for me until I had a chance to go to the restroom. He cursed and said no. When he cursed me, I cursed him back. When the bus got to Aiken he got off and went and got the police. They didn’t give me a chance to explain. The policeman struck me with a billy across my head and told me to shut up. After that the policeman grabbed me by my left arm and twisted it behind my back. I figured he was trying to make me resist. I did not resist against him. He asked me, was I discharged. And I told him yes. When I said yes that’s when he started beating me with a billy. Hitting me across the top of the head. After that I grabbed his billy and wrung it out of his hand. Another policeman came up and drew his gun on me and told me to drop the billy, or he drop me. So I dropped the billy. After I dropped it a second policeman held his gun on me while the other one was beating me. He knocked me unconscious. After I commenced to come to myself he yelled get up. I started to get up he started to punch me in the eyes with the billy. When I finally got up he pushed me inside the jailhouse and locked me up. I woke up next morning, I could not see.

Dr. Kristen Burton

Welles did not stop with just reading the affidavit from Issac Woodard. He devoted four more broadcasts to demand justice for Woodard and voice his concern about hate crimes committed against black Americans.

Archival Audio - Orson Welles on the Air

Wash your hands officer X, wash them well. Scrub and scour you won’t blot out the blood of a blinded war veteran. Or yet the color of your skin, your own skin. You’ll never never never change it. Wash your hands officer X. Wash a lifetime. You’ll never wash away that leperse lack of pigment, the guilty tallow of the white man. We invite you to luxuriate in secret, it will be brief. Go on suckle your anonymous moment while it lasts. You're going to be uncovered. We will blast out your name. We’ll give the world your given name officer X. Yes, and your so called Christian name. It’s going to rise out of the filthy deep like the dead thing it is. We’re going to make it public like the public scandal you dictated but failed to sign.

Dr. Matthew Delmont

And one of the important things that Welles does is he reveals the name of the police chief. It was a man named Lynwood Shull. That was uncommon at the time. It was usually the case that these southern police departments would kind of close ranks around whoever the officer was who was directly responsible for the beating or for the killing. Welles kind of pulled back the veil on that, and by revealing the police chief's name, helped to spark even more nationwide attention to the case and these kind of calls for justice.

Dr. Kristen Burton

After the broadcast, many letters were sent into the White House pleading for the Truman administration to do something about the case. Walter Francis White, Executive Secretary for the NAACP, met with President Truman at the Oval Office to discuss the case on September 19, 1946, and on September 26 Truman directed the Justice Department to open a federal investigation.

Feeling too much responsibility to care for a now disabled Woodard, his wife left him. Woodard’s sisters moved him to the Bronx, so he could be looked after by family.

Dr. Matthew Delmont

By October of 1946, he's living in the Bronx and has recovered—he's able to move now, and he goes on a national speaking tour sponsored by the NAACP to try to raise awareness about the kind of violence that black veterans are encountering. And the picture of him in his Army uniform with his eyes completely bandaged shows up in papers all across the country. And that helps to keep the story in the news, and I think really is an iconic photo, almost in part to the kind of Emmett Till lynching photos that come a decade later. And that really revealed to people the depth of brutality that black veterans were facing. One of the things that Woodard says in his speaking tour—and this is a quote from one of the papers—he says, “Negro veterans that fought in this war don't realize that the real battle has just begun in America. They went overseas and did their duty, and now they're at home and have to fight another struggle. And I think that outweighs the war.” And so for a lot of people, in 1946, Woodard really became a symbol of the kind of unresolved question about democracy in the United States, that you have black veterans who had done everything they could to serve their country proudly, and they came home and not only were they not treated as full citizens, but they were actually treated even worse. They were harassed and experienced violence in some cases because of their service.

Dr. Kristen Burton

Attacks continued on black veterans and many black Americans.

Like John Cecil Jones, an honorably-discharged corporal, who was tortured and lynched in Minden, Louisiana. Often these heinous crimes were covered up by local law enforcement and led to few repercussions for the criminals who committed these violent attacks.

Two weeks after Woodard was attacked, James Stephenson, another World War II veteran, walked into a department store in Columbia, Tennessee with his mother to collect their radio which had been dropped off earlier for repairs.

Dr. Matthew Delmont

So James Stephenson was a US Navy veteran who had served in the Pacific Theater. He and his mother were picking up a radio that had been repaired at a local department store, and the young white clerk at the department store starts to harass Stephenson's mother, threatens her physically, and is calling her all sorts of names. James Stephenson intervenes and the two men start to wrestle, Stephenson and the white clerk. They eventually crash through a department store window, and then the local police, who are all white, they arrest both Stephenson and his mother, whose name was Gladys. Things escalated when the white clerk's father charged Stephenson with assault with intent to commit murder, which is a felony. A local black businessman posted bond, which allowed Stephenson to return home. But by that night, the story was just all over town. Both the white and black communities are on edge. So by nightfall, there's a white mob, hundreds of people who gather around the county courthouse. And just about a block away, in the black business district, there's an almost equally sized mob or a group of hundreds of black military veterans and citizens who gather to defend the black community. The Columbia police chief sends in four patrolmen into this area. There's some sort of shouting involved. The officers are asked to stop. They don't stop. And someone starts firing. Four of the officers are wounded. And then, after that, state highway patrolmen and police officers flood into the black district and start beating black community members, black citizens. They start going into homes, breaking into businesses, just all sorts of kind of violence

Then, they arrest dozens and dozens of black citizens who had been there trying to defend their neighborhood and their property. Two days later, a white policeman killed two of the black prisoners who were in custody. They accused the prisoners of reaching for guns and then shoot them as a result—shoot and kill them. And so this story again receives national attention. The NAACP’s lead lawyer, who is at the time Thurgood Marshall, goes on to become the first black Supreme Court justice, flies to Nashville to organize a legal defense. And eventually, the case comes before an all-white jury who acquits the white police officers of any wrongdoing. But the kind of larger impact of the story is that it's less than a year after the end of the war, and so for a lot of black Americans, both in the south and across the nation, they're really kind of left asking, “Is this what we fought for?”

Dr. Kristen Burton

James Stephenson was ultimately never tried, nor was his mother despite the pleas of the white store clerk’s father to charge both with attempted murder.

Only one black man was convicted of murder, Llyod Kennedy. Thurgood Marshall would become the target of harassment by the police following the case. In one instance, white officers arrested him for drunk driving and took him on a terrifying drive in the remote countryside before finally dropping him off at a magistrate’s office, all charges dropped.

As for the case against Woodard’s attackers, the Justice Department’s investigation was lackluster, and though the officers were indicted, the trial was a farce. On November 5, 1946, after a brief deliberation, Lynwood Shull was found not guilty, a major blow to the Truman administration and its efforts to quell the growing threat of homegrown white supremacy.

Shull would continue out his life, without punishment, in Batesburg South Carolina, dying at the age of 95 on December 27, 1997.

Despite the lack of a conviction in Issac Woodard’s case, both Woodard’s and James Stephenson’s cases motivated President Truman to establish the Civil Rights commission in 1946 by Executive Order 9808. A fifteen member interracial group of academics and activists produced a report in 1947 entitled, To Secure These Rights: The Report of the President’s Committee on Civil Rights.

Part of the Committee’s recommendation was desegregating the military. Writing “...equal treatment can produce equal performance.”

Dr. Matthew Delmont

So civil rights activists had been calling for the desegregation in the armed forces for more than a decade and it intensifies after the war. A. Philip Randolph, who before the war, in 1941, before Pearl Harbor, had threatened to lead a massive march of black citizens in Washington, D.C.—he had threatened President Roosevelt with that—he continues that activism after the war. So in 1948, he leads a group that said it would encourage black Americans not to register for the new Selective Service Act and to refuse to serve in a segregated military. And so that really gets Truman's attention. A. Philip Randolph is one of the best known African-American leaders and activists nationally, and so for him to make that threat really got the president's attention. It also—Truman has fears that it looks especially bad in the Cold War era. So as the US is increasingly competing with Russia for the attention of countries in other parts of the world who are trying to make this choice between sort of capitalism and democracy and communism, it looks bad to have someone like A. Philip Randolph threatening to keep black people out of out of the military. Truman—I mentioned before—he had the Committee on Civil Rights. They issued the report, which is called “To Secure These Rights”—they issued that in 1947, and it calls on the White House, Congress, and the state legislatures to adopt nearly three dozen wide-ranging proposals, which include ending poll taxes, passing voting rights and federal anti-lynching legislation, outlining racial housing covenants, establishing a federal Fair Employment Practices Act, and finally ending military segregation to protect the dignity of the uniform in the armed services.

From white southern constituents, they see these recommendations as really a frontal attack on Jim Crow. And so he has to see—am I going to implement any of these at the risk of losing votes from almost all the south? At the same time, Truman sees that there is increasing voting power, particularly in black communities in states in the north and Midwest. What he ends up deciding is that given the composition of Congress, particularly the number of southerners who have leadership positions there, he can't get most of those recommendations through Congress or they would take years to pass. The one thing he has the authority to do as the commander in chief of the Army Navy is to desegregate the armed forces. So on July 26, 1948, he signs the Executive Order 9981, which commits the government to desegregate the military, and about a month later, he's right to expect that there was going to be significant pushback from southerners. So southern delegates walk out of the Democratic National Convention and they break off and form the States’ Rights Democratic Party, which is called the Dixiecrats, and nominate South Carolina’s governor Strom Thurmond for the presidential election.

Dr. Kristen Burton

Truman would go on to narrowly win the 1948 election despite the opposition from the Dixiecrats. He suffered politically by losing the “Solid South,” that once voted strongly democrat. And even though President Truman was exempt from term limitations set in the 22nd Amendment, he would not seek re-election in 1952.

Sgt Isaac Woodard and his story would continue to shape both American politics and popular culture for the next decade. Folk singer Woody Guthrie penned the song “The Blinding of Isaac Woodard” and performed it for tens of thousands of concert-goers, hoping to both honor Woodard and ensure that no one forgot the crime that was committed against him, and the miscarriage of justice that allowed his attackers to go free. Woodard lived the rest of his life in New York City, and died in 1992 at the age of 73. He was buried with military honors at the Calverton National Cemetery.

Dr. Matthew Delmont

It was totally illogical from a logistical perspective to send a segregated military to fight in World War II. It made no logistical sense. It was only because the racism was so deeply rooted in the United States that they did that. So they could have, for all intents and purposes, have integrated in 1938. I think that would have been preferable certainly for most African-Americans. But at the same time, Truman signed this order in 1948. It's the first federal office, first federal branch in the country to be desegregated. So it comes before schools, it comes before—you have the importance of rights legislation that's going to apply to employment and to housing. So the military, while it could have happened earlier in what activists wanted it to happen earlier, it still is path-breaking that it does happen when it does in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

And so I think more than anything, what I want people to come away from listening to this is an understanding that black Americans were absolutely critical to the war effort, that they served their country proudly even in the face of tremendous racism.

Dr. Kristen Burton

In our next episode, “The Temper of the Courts,” a California court hears arguments challenging the practice of segregating students of Mexican descent into “remedial schools for Mexicans.” Sylvia Mendez and her family spent the next year of their lives entangled in a court battle.

From The National WWII Museum, I’m Dr. Kristen Burton. This episode was written by digital content manager Bert Hidalgo, who also did the sound mixing. Archival audio is courtesy of the Orson Welles on the Air project at Indiana University Libraries.

If you like this podcast, please rate and review us or leave us a comment on your favorite podcast platform, which helps others to find the series. "To the Best of My Ability" is part of an ongoing series of programs commemorating the 75th Anniversary of the End of World War II made possible by The Nierenberg Family.