An Awakening to What Was Always There
Momentous historical events are usually preceded by lesser known, but other particularly important events, that create a broader tapestry of history broadening our understanding of the event we think we know. United States District Judge and author, Richard Gergel tells a captivating story of how the attack of a black WW II veteran was part of the legacy that led to the historic Supreme Court decision Brown v Board of Education. The bookends of this story are two black men, Sgt. Isaac Woodard and Thurgood Marshall. In between are Federal District Judge J. Waties Waring and President Harry Truman. One of 900,000 black veterans who served in the military during WW II, Isaac Woodard was on a bus, with other veterans, home to South Carolina. A heated verbal exchange with the bus driver resulted in Woodard being beaten by the sheriff, Lynwood Shull, in the next town. Woodard’s injuries included his eyes being gauged out with the sheriff’s blackjack. Woodard was seen by physicians noting his conditions and was released from the VA hospital. When the NAACP learned of the beating, the initiated a nationwide speaking tour that featured Woodard addressing the crowd to recount his experience to large audiences across the country.
The mounting controversy, across the country, of the blinding of Woodard had reached the White House. When Walter White, executive secretary of the NAACP, met with the presented to discuss the matter, Truman was visibly moved responding, “My God! I had no idea it was as bad as that! We have got to do something.” Truman instructed his attorney general, Tom Clark, to initiate an FBI investigation of the Woodard affair and to file criminal charges against Sheriff Shull. Additionally, with Walter White’s assistance Truman set in motion the first federal commission on civil rights.
Federal District Judge J. Waties Waring was a native of South Carolina and enjoyed all the benefits a white man of position available. When the Woodard case was assigned to another judge, he agreed to accept it, knowing his colleague didn’t want the burden of a civil rights trial. Waring was as moved by the accounts of the blinding of Woodard as Truman and his equal treatment of the defense and prosecution attorneys left an impression on all the spectators in the gallery. Shull’s eventual ‘not guilty’ decision, from the all white jury, set Judge Waring on a path of discovery. Waring’s judicial objectivity was evident in cases that dealt with unequal teacher’s pay, debt peonage and school desegragation. It was the burgeoning caseload of school desegregation cases that the NAACP was bringing to the federal judiciary that ultimately brought him the most notoriety and public animus; attacks from the KKK, being ostracized by former friends and an attempt to have him impeached. With the leadership of Thurgood Marshall, Waring was helpful in creating a judicial pathway that ultimately led to the historic decision Brown v Board of Education.
Unexampled Courage was a pleasure to read because it presented useful background information and broadened my understanding of lesser known activist in the struggle to overturn legal school segregation. I highly recommend it.