“Unexampled Courage: The Blinding of Sgt. Isaac Woodard and the Awakening of President Harry S. Truman and Judge J. Waties Waring,” by Richard Gergel
Book Review by DAVID W. BLIGHT February 7, 2019
In “Reconstruction,” an essay published in 1866, Frederick Douglass argued that even as radical Republicans (former abolitionists and their supporters) gained control over America’s constitutional revolution, this might not matter “while there remains such an idea as the right of each state to control its own local affairs,” a notion “more deeply rooted in the minds of men … than perhaps any one other political idea.” What had to be done, Douglass said, was to “render the rights of the states compatible with the sacred rights of human nature.” As “Unexampled Courage,” Richard Gergel’s remarkable book about the early legal stages of the civil rights movement, makes clear, Douglass’s thrilling goal of natural rights and federal power combining to overwhelm states’ rights remained for nearly a century an unrealized dream. Perhaps it still is.
White supremacy represents another set of ideas that Americans have never conquered. Gergel’s book is a revealing window into both the hideous racial violence and humiliation of segregation in the period immediately after World War II, and the heroic origins of the legal crusade to destroy Jim Crow. Gergel, a United States district judge in South Carolina who presided in the Dylann Roof trial in 2017, has written an engrossing history, animated by the stories of several key characters. The book demonstrates not only the viciousness of the Jim Crow system but also shows just how profoundly entrenched were the racism and states’ rights tradition faced by Thurgood Marshall and his team of N.A.A.C.P. lawyers in their incremental legal efforts to defeat the American apartheid.
Gergel frames his story with the 1946 beating and blinding of Sgt. Isaac Woodard, a young African-American soldier returning home from the Pacific war. Traveling through South Carolina on a Greyhound bus, Woodard, still in uniform, was forced off in the town of Batesburg for alleged misbehavior. There, the local police chief, Lynwood Shull, bludgeoned him with a blackjack, gouging his eyes and permanently blinding him. Such wanton violence was part of a larger pattern of attacks on some of the 900,000 returning black veterans.
Permanently disabled, Woodard moved to the Bronx, and for a while traveled as a celebrity victim of racist violence under the sponsorship of the N.A.A.C.P. Orson Welles publicized Woodard’s case on his radio show, helping to incite widespread demand for Shull’s prosecution. Woodard’s story recedes as Gergel recounts the history of the book’s two other central characters: Judge J. Waties Waring, who presided in Shull’s trial, and President Harry S. Truman. This strategy is largely effective, although some of the socioeconomic and Cold War contexts to which this great legal saga owes much go undeveloped.
Waring occupied the same Charleston courthouse that Gergel now does; he is Gergel’s hero, and deservedly so, despite the fact that our current historical moment may not allow much room for white champions of civil rights. Drawing on Waring’s papers, rich oral histories, F.B.I. records, Richard Kluger’s classic work “Simple Justice” and Caryl Phillips’s lyrical treatment of Waring in his book “The Atlantic Sound,” among other works of civil rights scholarship, Gergel paints a vivid portrait of Waring and his second wife, Elizabeth, a Northern import to Charleston who eventually became an outspoken critic of segregation.
Waring, born in 1880, was a Charleston patrician whose ancestors were slaveholders and whose father was a Confederate soldier. He had long been a Southern Democrat and tacit supporter of segregation until after he was appointed a federal judge in 1942 and confronted cases bearing evidence of Jim Crow’s brutal handiwork. The judge had read the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause and come to the realization, he said, that he could either remain “entirely governed by the doctrine of white supremacy,” or be “a federal judge and decide the law.” He began to explore a different history of Reconstruction than the one most other white South Carolinians knew, drawing inspiration especially from Gunnar Myrdal’s 1,400-page study, “An American Dilemma.”
Beginning in 1944, in Duvall v. Seignous, when Waring issued a consent decree providing equal pay for a black teacher, he presided over a series of cases that ultimately helped pave the road for the Brown v. Board decision of 1954. In 1945, in Thompson v. Gibbes, another pay-equity case, Waring explicitly overruled states’ rights, declaring that a state “cannot deprive the federal courts of jurisdiction granted them under the Constitution.”
In November 1946, Shull stood trial in Waring’s courtroom. Gergel provides a detailed account of the incompetent and racist lawyering conducted by the government’s attorneys. Woodard’s testimony profoundly affected Waring and his wife, forcing them, Gergel writes, to “stare into the Southern racial abyss” as never before. Nevertheless, Shull was acquitted quickly by an all-white jury, with the defense counsel warning that if a “decision against the government means seceding, then let South Carolina secede again.” Waring called the trial’s travesty of justice his “baptism of fire.”
Gergel intersperses the Waring and Woodard narratives with chapters on President Truman’s own coming-to-conscience on civil rights. The turning point for Truman, who came from a Missouri family steeped in Confederate culture, seems to have been a conversation at the White House in September 1946 with the N.A.A.C.P. leader Walter White, who related the details of Woodard’s blinding. The next day, Truman wrote to his attorney general to request the formation of a presidential committee on civil rights. Over the following two years, he gave a stunning speech on racial equality at the Lincoln Memorial, desegregated the military by executive order and released the committee’s report, “To Secure These Rights,” declaring a dire need for federal intervention to overcome all manner of racial discrimination. Truman’s actions sent shock waves among Southern Democrats and led to the formation of the Dixiecrats in the presidential campaign of 1948.
Back in Charleston, Waring continued to rule against peonage and the Democrats’ white primaries. He and his wife were vilified, and the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross at their home, an incident that garnered national press coverage. Both Warings made public statements during this painful saga, the judge declaring that it was time for South Carolina to “rejoin the Union,” as he threatened to jail white men for preventing black people from voting.
Gergel brings his riveting narrative to a climax with the Briggs v. Elliott case of 1951. This school segregation suit from rural Clarendon County brought hundreds of black citizens to Waring’s court for the first time, and though the three-judge panel ruled 2 to 1 in favor of sustaining “separate” schools, Waring’s famous dissent, arguing that “segregation is per se inequality,” eventually led the N.A.A.C.P. to mount a frontal assault at the Supreme Court against the Plessy doctrine of “separate but equal.”
The great value of “Unexampled Courage” is that it might garner a broad audience for the kinds of heroism involved in this history of litigation, all of which was a necessary prelude to the direct-action crusade of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. Gergel may place too much emphasis on individual agency in this story, but it is impossible to deny the pivotal role of these figures: Harry and Eliza Briggs and the Rev. Joseph DeLaine, the plaintiffs in Briggs, who risked all and lost their jobs; the titanic Marshall and his lawyerly activists, who assembled a mountain of facts to overwhelm Jim Crow’s wiliest ways; a depressed, blinded Isaac Woodard, who lived out his life mostly on charity in the Bronx; a president from a neo-Confederate corner of Missouri; and, finally, a judge who committed treason to his race and class to try to move the South into modernity.
Would that Chief Justice John Roberts and his four fellow conservative justices might read this riveting legal history and rethink the decision in Shelby v. Holder of 2013, which eviscerated federal oversight of voting rights in the Deep South. But while we wait for that unlikelihood, we should remember that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed because of the history Gergel recounts. When Waring met Truman at the White House in 1948, they shared their memories of learning about Woodard’s blinding. Then Waring told the president that most white South Carolinians “will not voluntarily do anything along the lines suggested by you,” and that it was “necessary for the federal government to firmly and constantly keep up the pressure.”
We live in a nation still stymied by the tradition of states’ rights and by racism. Equality, especially the right to vote, is still at the mercy of local beliefs and practices. In 1956, James Baldwin reminded us why we have laws: “It is easy to proclaim all souls equal in the sight of God; it is hard to make men equal on earth in the sight of men.”
Review in the New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/07/books/review/richard-gergel-unexampled-courage.html