A federal judge from South Carolina examines a rarely mentioned 1946 race-based crime that profoundly altered officially sanctioned segregation of blacks in the white-dominated United States.
Gergel (In the Pursuit of the Tree of Life: A History of the Early Jews of Columbia, South Carolina, 1996) drew inspiration from a courageous predecessor judge who presided in the Charleston federal courthouse. However, the searing narrative does not open with the heroic judge, J. Waties Waring (1880-1968). Rather, the author opens in 1945, as roughly 900,000 black soldiers returned to the U.S. after serving their country in World War II. One of them, Isaac Woodard (1919-1992), was on a bus in rural South Carolina, planning to return to his family. The white bus driver perceived that Woodard, dressed in his military uniform, was acting disrespectfully, so he halted the bus and ejected him, handing him over to the racist local police chief, Lynwood Shull. Although unprovoked, Shull beat Woodard with a blackjack, with special force around his eyes. The wounds caused almost immediate blindness, and Woodard lay helpless in the local jail. Eventually, news of the beating reached civil rights activists, who made sure President Harry Truman heard about the brutality. That set in motion legal proceedings culminating in charges that were shocking at the time. At Truman’s insistence, federal prosecutors filed criminal charges against Shull. The case unfolded in the courtroom of Judge Waring, and an all-white jury quickly acquitted Shull. However, the obviously unjust verdict shook Waring to his emotional core, and he spent the remainder of his career writing rulings meant to promote fairness for blacks in his courtroom, working remotely with such allies as the NAACP and Thurgood Marshall. President Truman reacted to the beating of Woodard by ordering racial integration of the U.S. military despite massive resistance. Gergel is both an astute researcher and an engaging writer, bringing this significant story to vivid life.
Civil rights history at its most compelling.