Isaac Woodard (1919-1992)

Isaac Woodard, Jr. Escorted by Joe Louis and Unidentified Man, 1946
Isaac Woodard with eyes swollen shut, February 1946
Photo by J. DeBisse, Courtesy U.S. Library of Congress

In 1946, U.S. Army Sergeant Isaac Woodard challenged a Greyhound bus driver while traveling from Georgia to North Carolina after being discharged from service in World War II.  Police officers, who met him at the next stop, brutally attacked him and left him permanently blind. The attack on Woodard and similar stories of mistreatment of other black servicemen returning from the war led to new national pressures on racial segregation and discrimination and to the integration of the armed services in 1948.

Isaac Woodard was born in Fairfield, South Carolina but grew up in Goldsboro, North Carolina.  He enlisted in the U.S. Army on October 14, 1942, at Fort Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina, and served in the Pacific as part of a labor battalion. Woodard received an honorable discharge at Camp Gordon, Georgia in early February 1946.  Along with a contingent of other discharged soldiers–black and white–Woodard boarded a Greyhound Bus on February 12 to travel back home to North Carolina.  A conflict was triggered when the bus driver belittled the army veteran for asking to take a bathroom break.  At the next stop, Woodard was met by the Chief Linwood Shull of the Batesburg, South Carolina police. The chief, along with his deputies, beat Woodard savagely with their nightsticks.  Woodard was later charged with drunk and disorderly conduct before finally being taken to a veteran’s hospital in Columbia, South Carolina.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) took up Woodard’s case in the spring of 1946, pressing military officials to provide assistance to the gravely injured veteran while also calling for legal action against Chief Shull.  By September, NAACP officials met with President Harry Truman who expressed outrage over this assault on a veteran.  Shull was tried in federal court but released after the jury deliberated only thirty minutes.  As news of this attack circulated in the national media, President Harry Truman created the first President’s Committee on Civil Rights (PCCR) which published To Secure These Rights in 1947.  This groundbreaking report led to the desegregation of the military in 1948 and new federal attention to racial inequality as a matter of both domestic justice and out of concern for Cold War politics.

For many Americans, Isaac Woodard became a sympathetic figure representing the larger conflicts of Jim Crow emerging after World War II.  The public response to the vicious attack on Woodard, as well as that of President Harry Truman, signaled a major shift in public support for civil rights during the 1940s.

Isaac Woodard died in the Bronx, New York on September 23, 1992.  He was 73.