Isaac Woodard Jr. was a decorated World War II veteran who was brutally beaten and blinded while still on uniform on February 12, 1946, just hours after he was honorably discharged from the United States Army.
Isaac Woodard was born in Fairfield County, South Carolina, but grew up in Goldsboro, North Carolina where he attended local segregated schools, during the Jim Crow years.
On October 14, 1942, at the age of 23, Mr. Woodard enlisted in the United States Army, where he served as a longshoreman in the Pacific Theater of World War II. He earned a battle star for his Asiatic–Pacific Campaign Medal by unloading ships under enemy fire in New Guinea he also received the Good Conduct Medal as well as the Service medal and World War II Victory Medal awarded to all American participants.
On February 12, 1946, hours after he was honorably discharged from the United States Army, Woodard was on a bus traveling from Camp Gordon in Augusta, Georgia, en route to rejoin his family in North Carolina when the despicable incident occurred.
An argument with the bus driver over a restroom break – a request the bus company’s policy required drivers to accommodate – led the driver to call the police when they stopped in Batesburg (now Batesburg-Leesville, South Carolina).
On getting to the scene, the police chief, Lynwood Shull, and another officer forcibly removed Woodard from the bus. After demanding to see his discharge papers, a number of Batesburg policemen, including Shull, took Woodard to a nearby alleyway, where they beat him repeatedly with batons. They then took Woodard to the town jail and detained him for disorderly conduct, accusing him of drinking beer in the back of the bus.
During the course of the night in jail, Shull beat and blinded Woodard, who later stated in court that he was beaten for saying “Yes” instead of “Yes, sir”. Newspaper accounts indicate that Woodard’s eyes had been “gouged out”; historical documents indicate that each globe was ruptured irreparably in the socket. He also suffered partial amnesia as a result of the repeated hits on his head.
The next morning, Mr. Woodard appeared before the local judge where he was convicted of drunken and disorderly conduct and fined $50.
After the sham trial, the soldier requested medical assistance, but it took two more days for a doctor to be sent to him. Not knowing where he was and suffering from amnesia, Woodard eventually ended up in a hospital in a different town, receiving substandard medical care.
Three weeks after he was reported missing by his relatives, Woodard was discovered in a hospital. He was immediately rushed to an Army hospital in Spartanburg. Though his memory had begun to recover by that time, doctors found both eyes were damaged beyond repair.
The attack which left Woodard completely and permanently blind sparked national outrage and galvanized the civil rights movement in the United States.
News of the blinding of an African-American World World II veteran traveled beyond the South, much of it carried by the black press.
The NAACP (The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) helped Woodard embark on a speaking tour to help people see realities of police brutality up-close.
“I spent three-and-a-half years in the service of my country and thought that I would be treated like a man when I returned to civilian life, but I was mistaken,” Woodard told the audience. “If the loss of my sight will make people in America get together to prevent what happened to me from ever happening again to any other person, I would be glad.”
Due to South Carolina’s reluctance to pursue the case, on September 19, 1946, seven months after the incident, the Executive Secretary of NAACP’ Walter Francis White met with President Harry S. Truman to discuss the Woodard case, after the meeting President Harry S. Truman ordered a federal investigation. The sheriff, Lynwood Shull, was indicted and went to trial in federal court in South Carolina, where he — despite his admission that he had blinded Woodard — was acquitted by an all-white jury after 30 minutes of deliberation. The courtroom broke into applause upon hearing the verdict.
The pitiable outcome of the trial influenced a move towards civil rights initiatives at the federal level and subsequently spurred President Harry S. Truman into establishing a national interracial commission and desegregating the armed forces and the federal government on June 26, 1948.
Shull, the officer responsible for beating and blinding Isaac Woodard went on to live for another 51 years. He died in Batesburg (now Batesburg-Leesville, South Carolina) on December 27, 1997, at the age of 95.
Mr. Woodard recovered in a veteran’s hospital and eventually moved to New York without his wife, who walked out on the marriage after the incident. He lived in New York with his family until his death in 1992. He was 73.
He was buried with military honors at the Calverton National Cemetery in Calverton, New York. In 2019, a historic marker about Woodard went up in the city where he was blinded, now called Batesburg-Leesville.