In my sophomore year of college, I took a class in black history at UMKC. We had an assignment ithat we were to interview black men and women about their experiences and attitudes. My father had an office on the third floor of the First National Bank Building, where he operated an insurance agency. I enlisted his help because I was a shy 19-year old college student
My dad introduced me to the guard in the lobby of the bank. Although initially reluctant, but he turned out to be a very good interviewee. He told me how much President Truman meant to him and other black people. President Truman had died just a few months earlier. I learned in the interview that President Truman was beloved because he had integrated the armed forces while he was president.
Having grown up three blocks from the Truman home where I still live, I remember his walks through our neighborhood. I now wonder what he thought when he walked down Delaware toward the library that bears his name and saw the black neighborhood called “the Neck.” By the time he died, that neighborhood had been demolished through the urban renewal program. Yet he lived a good part of his life a couple of blocks from a black neighborhood. I now wonder how his attitude towards African Americans was changed by the story I am about to tell.
Earlier this week I learned the rest of the story on Truman’s courageous undertaking to integrate the armed forces. The story is told in a book entitled “Unexampled Courage: The Blinding of Sgt. Isaac Woodard and the Awakening of President Harry S. Truman and Judge J. Waties Waring.” The book was written by a federal judge in South Carolina, Richard Gergel.
I learned about this book from my former law partner, Mike Manners, who is huge fan of our former president. Mike shared with me a speech on YouTube given by Judge Gergel. Judge Gergel gives us a glimpse of the story of Sgt. Isacc Woodard, an African American veteran who was removed from a Greyhound bus in Batesburg, South Carolina in 1947 after he challenged the bus driver’s treatment of him. Woodward was still in uniform and was a veteran of World War II. He was arrested by the local police chief, Lynwood Shull, and was beaten so badly while in custody that he was blinded.
After hearing the story, Walter White, the executive secretary of the NAACP who was also a strong supporter of President Truman, sought an audience with the president to talk about taking action on civil rights. Many black men fought in World War II and had made the ultimate sacrifice, so the time was ripe. However, President Truman was reluctant to do anything, especially when he was facing a tough election in 1948.
White then told him the story of Isaac Woodard. President Truman was so outraged by what he had heard that he immediately appointed a presidential commission on civil rights and ordered it to boldly attack the problem of racism. Out of that commission came the Order No. 9981 which abolished discrimination in the armed forces and thereby integrated all branches of the military. The order was entered July 26, 1948 three months before Truman beat Dewey in the famous election of 1948. It was a courageous decision in an election year because Jim Crow was still alive and well in the Deep South. Black lives mattered to the man from Independence.
After the executive order was issued, the Justice Department filed criminal charges against Lynwood Shull. Unfortunately, an all-white jury acquitted him. The presiding judge was J. Waties Waring, whose conscience was stricken by the failure of the court system to render justice for Sgt. Woodard. Judge Waring was very disappointed with the effort of the U.S. attorney who tried the case and was very upset with Shull’s defense lawyer. who blatantly appealed to the racism in the jury. Judge Waring became a different kind of judge after that trial.
Judge Waring described the trial of Shull as his “baptism of fire” and began issuing major civil rights decisions from his Charleston, South Carolina courtroom, including his 1951 dissent in Briggs v. Elliott declaring public school segregation unconstitutional, which later became the language and reasoning in the landmark decision Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education. Judge Waring later rendered decisions upholding equal pay for African American teachers and ended white-only party primaries.
Judge Waring became a radical proponent of civil rights. He was criticized by politicians, editors and social leaders in South Carolina; he also received several death threats and was shunned by most of the citizens of Charleston. He later moved to New York and continued to champion civil rights.
In 2015, the name of the federal courthouse in Charleston was changed to bear the name of Judge Waring. Judge Gergel sits in his courtroom. This whole story began with the tragic beating of a black man in a small town in South Carolina by a police officer.
Seventy-two years later, the tragic and unnecessary death of George Floyd will hopefully lead us all to make some radical changes such as those that began with the beating and blinding of a man named Isaac Woodard. Who will be awakened? And who will write the stories?
Bob Buckley is an attorney in Independence. Email him at email@example.com.