In 1946, it took the blinding of an African-American Army veteran to get some white Americans to see — from a federal judge to the president of the United States.
It was February of that year when 27-year-old Isaac Woodard stepped aboard a Greyhound bus in Augusta, GA, for a trip home to South Carolina, just hours after his discharge from serving in World War II. The journey would take him through the Jim Crow South, into a dark terrain of racial hatred.
At one point en route, Woodard inquired about the next opportunity for a restroom break. The bus driver responded “disrespectfully,” according to Jamila Ephron, director of the documentary The Blinding of Isaac Woodard.
“Woodard stood up for himself and insisted that he be treated like a man and that he was a man just like the bus driver,” Ephron tells Deadline. “And that was a very risky thing to do at this point in history.”
“At the next stop [in Batesburg, SC], the bus driver found a police officer who removed Isaac Woodard from the bus and, within moments, it turned into a violent encounter,” Ephron explains. “The police officer also didn’t like being spoken back to and ended up gouging both of Isaac Woodard’s eyes out with his nightstick.”
Woodward, permanently blinded, was jailed and fined $50. The incident might never have received wider attention — remaining just another undocumented outrage in a long and hideous history of them — were it not for the NAACP. The organization, under the leadership of Walter White, championed Woodard’s case and demanded an investigation. It enlisted the aid of a young Orson Welles, who publicized the incident across the radio airwaves.
“Welles was drawn instantly to the story, largely because it was still a mystery who had done this to Woodard, where it had happened, and he wanted to help,” Ephron says. “He made it the focus of several episodes of his radio show, and it ended up generating leads that led to the arrest of the police officer who had done this to Isaac Woodard. And it also generated a certain amount of notoriety that the incident couldn’t just be swept under the rug.”
When White and other NAACP officials later went to the White House to press for action on civil rights, White told President Truman the story of Isaac Woodard’s blinding. Truman, a World War I vet, reacted with horror.
“The fact that this happened while Woodard was still in uniform with medals on his chest, so close to being discharged after such a long service, it really rattled Truman. And it was impossible for him to just do nothing anymore,” Ephron recounts. “He exclaimed, ‘I didn’t know it was so bad as this.’ There was a lot of willful ignorance going on, but this really put a stop to that, learning about what had happened to Isaac Woodard.”
As the documentary reveals, Truman pushed his Justice Department to take action, and U.S. attorneys — reluctantly — pursued the prosecution of police chief Linwood Shull, the man who had blinded Woodard. An all-white jury in Columbia promptly acquitted Shull. Again, the story might have ended there were it not for the presiding judge, J. Waties Waring, an eighth-generation Charlestonian and, ostensibly, a dyed-in-the-gray-wool Southerner. But the injustice of the trial kindled Judge Waring’s indignation over not just the treatment of Woodard but of Black people as a whole under segregation in the South.
“I think what [the Woodard case] made him realize was that the Jim Crow system was not just this benign cultural institution,” Ephron observes. “It was violent, and it existed because of fear of violence and it cost people lives — and the brutality of it, it just really got to him. He basically spent the rest of his life fighting for racial justice, educating himself about racism and re-examining his own role in this system.”
The film explores how Waring sought out federal cases that would challenge Jim Crow. Among the ones he took was Briggs v. Elliott, an appeals case centering on the constitutionality of “separate but equal” education for Black and white kids in South Carolina. Future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, then chief attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, represented the plaintiffs, a group of Black parents whose children were relegated to a third-class education in a system that was anything but equal.
A three-judge panel voted 2-1 to uphold the status quo, but Waring wrote a dissent that contained the words, “Segregation is per se inequality.” The Briggs case eventually was combined with other similar legal challenges and led to the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954 that outlawed segregation in public schools. Waring’s dissent formed the legal and intellectual basis of that decision.
Isaac Woodard died in 1992 at age 73, not knowing how the attack on him, through a chain set of circumstances, had set in motion the dissolution of Jim Crow.
“How do we not know this story? How do we not know what happened to Isaac Woodard? That’s a very common reaction,” Ephron says of responses to her film. “It sort of makes people feel a bit ashamed that this wasn’t something that was on our radar.”
The documentary is based on the book Unexampled Courage: The Blinding of Sgt. Isaac Woodard and the Awakening of President Harry S. Truman and Judge J. Waties Waring, by Richard Gergel, himself a federal judge (Gergel presided over the trial of Dylann Roof, the white man convicted of murdering nine Black congregants at a Bible study in Charleston in 2015).
Gergel appears in the film, along with descendants of Woodard and relatives of other key figures from the story. At a time of reckoning with institutionalized racism in the aftermath of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black women and men, The Blinding of Isaac Woodard speaks to today. That’s consistent with what American Experience is all about, Ephron says.
“I can’t overstate what I think American Experience contributes. There’s sort of nothing like it on TV today,” Ephron affirms. “We are given the time to really thoroughly research sometimes well-known moments in American history but to find new elements and relevance to our current moments.”
Ephron adds: “We began making this film well before the most recent Black Lives Matter protests. But there were so many elements of the story where this sort of circularity of history, it gets to you after a while. It could have happened today.’