Last week, Harvard Law School hosted Judge Richard Gergel, U.S. District Judge of the U. S. District Court for the District of South Carolina, for a talk on his book, “Unexampled Courage: The Blinding of Sgt. Isaac Woodard and the Awakening of President Harry S. Truman and Judge J. Waties Waring.” Gergel’s talk was followed by a conversation with HLS professors Randall Kennedy, Kenneth Mack and Mark Tushnet, experts in the history of civil rights and race relations in America.
“Unexampled Courage” tells the story of Sergeant Isaac Woodard, a returning, decorated WWII African American veteran who was removed from a Greyhound bus in Batesburg, South Carolina, after he challenged the bus driver’s disrespectful treatment of him. Woodard, in uniform, was arrested by the local police chief, Lynwood Shull, and beaten and blinded while in custody.
Outraged by the incident, President Harry Truman established the first presidential commission on civil rights and his Justice Department filed criminal charges against Shull. Although Shull was acquitted by an all-white South Carolina jury, the presiding judge, J. Waties Waring, believe the court system failed to do justice by the soldier. Waring began issuing major civil rights decisions from his Charleston courtroom, including a 1951 dissent in Briggs v. Elliott, declaring public school segregation per se unconstitutional. Three years later, the Supreme Court adopted Waring’s language and reasoning in Brown v. Board of Education.
“Unexampled Courage” details the impact of the blinding of Sergeant Woodard on the racial awakening of President Truman and Judge Waring, and traces their influential roles in changing the course of America’s civil rights history.
The event was co-sponsored by the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, the Harvard Law School Program on Law & History, and the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research.