A Blinding, An Awakening, and a Journey Through Civil Rights History

by Amelia Ashton Thorn

Summer 2019 | Volume 103 Number 2

Sergeant Isaac Woodard had just completed a three-year tour in a segregated unit of the United States Army. He boarded a Greyhound bus in Augusta, Ga., that would take him home. But following a heated exchange with the bus driver, Woodard was forcibly removed at a stop in Batesburg, S.C., and later, beaten blind by the town’s police chief Lynwood Shull.

It was 1946. Civil rights prosecutions were nearly unheard of. But President Harry S. Truman insisted that his attorney general bring criminal charges. The police chief was tried before an all-white jury in the courtroom of United States District Judge J. Waties Waring; the evidence left little doubt of his guilt, but he was acquitted.

Judge Waring had taken for granted the segregated South, but the blinding of Woodard forced him to see clearly. He reexamined his assumptions, delved into texts, and was awakened to the vast system of inequality that surrounded him. He penned several landmark civil rights decisions in the years that followed, including a 1951 dissent in Briggs v. Elliott that declared segregation per se unconstitutional. That case would become a model for the Supreme Court’s opinion in Brown v. Board of Education.

Judge Richard Gergel assumed his seat on the same court in 2010, more than 60 years later. He soon realized that few knew of Judge Waring’s legacy — or of his journey into the civil rights movement. Judge Gergel’s new book, Unexampled Courage: The Blinding of Sgt. Isaac Woodard and the Awakening of President Harry S. Truman and Judge J. Waties Waring, uncovers just that. In the interview that follows, Gergel talks about writing the book and his lasting impressions of Judge Waring. Click here to read two excerpts from Unexampled Courage that explore Judge Waring’s experience as a civil rights-era judge in the South.          

What kind of story did you set out to tell when you first started writing the book?

Well, that suggests that I actually had this really broad game plan — and I really did not. I was aware from the great book, Simple Justice, by Richard Kluger, that there had been this heroic civil rights judge in Charleston named Waties Waring who was largely forgotten and unknown in South Carolina history. I was aware of that.

But the details of his life were kind of vague. There had been a biography in the 1980s that had come out that really didn’t give you much of a feel for him. So he was a kind of an enigma. He was an improbable candidate to be a visionary southern civil rights judge. So the natural question was, “What caused him to change?” There were later judges who came from the South who had been Republican appointees by Eisenhower, and they were Republicans of the South because they were not segregationists, or they were not adherent to Jim Crow. So you kind of got why they might have been different. They were kind of against the grain in the one-party South.

Waties Waring did not fit that profile. He had been a party regular, close with the U.S. senators. He was very tied into all this. He seemed to be an improbable candidate for the role he assumed.

I’ve got to say that as I reread Simple Justice, which I did as I was awaiting confirmation, I continued to wonder what had caused this guy to change, and there was little insight into that. At my investiture ceremony, I referred to the legacy of Judge Waring. I noticed my audience seemed surprised that there was such a person. These were lawyers. But they were like, “What? What’s he talking about?” I could tell that people were quizzically looking at each other. Later people said to me, “Who was this guy you were talking about?”

I decided to organize a conference around Judge Waring and his legacy sponsored by the South Carolina Supreme Court Historical Society, a group I had been involved in for years. The program was held in Judge Waring’s historic courtroom and was titled “Judge J. Waties Waring and the Dissent that Changed America.” A number of prominent historians participated in the program, and our keynote speaker was Charles Ogletree, the renowned Harvard Law professor.  We had overflowing crowds for every talk.

My plan was to publish a book following the conference and to have our speakers each contribute a chapter.  I had followed this plan in several previous Supreme Court Historical Society conferences and the books were published by the University of South Carolina Press.  Well, no one else seemed interested in contributing chapters to the effort. So I decided to write the book myself.  I thought this was a story worth telling.

The original focus of my research was on what changed Judge Waring. I was able to find literally hundreds of news articles on him. He was a national figure at the time, in the late 1940s and early 1950s. A lot of reporters back then were also asking the question, “What changed him?” The same thing that I wanted to know!  He would answer by saying, “While on the bench, I developed a passion for justice.” So that was his stock answer, but that told me nothing. It was surely true, that he had changed while on the bench, but what changed him still remained unclear. My initial mission was just trying to figure that out.

I had accessed information on his docket and I saw this very unusual case involving the blinded African American sergeant, Isaac Woodard, and the police chief that was prosecuted. Civil rights prosecutions at that time were very unusual. And Waring never had another civil rights prosecution — he had just this one. As I dug more into this story, I realized how much there was to it. Though there wasn’t anything significant written on Isaac Woodard, I discovered hundreds of news articles out there on the case from across the nation, particularly in the African American press. Then I spoke to a friend of mine, Dr. Patricia Sullivan, who has written a definitive history of the NAACP (Lift Every Voice: The NAACP and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement). She said, “There are a lot of documents in the Library of Congress on Isaac Woodard.” That’s where the NAACP papers are.

I discovered there were 4,000 documents.

That was pretty amazing, and the story was just nothing but fascinating. Then as I researched, I became more and more persuaded that my hypothesis — that the Woodard case was the case that most significantly changed Waties Waring’s thinking and trajectory — was correct.

I then asked myself, “How did this case even get brought?” Because a prosecution of a white officer involving a black victim in 1946 was very rare. That then led me to another discovery: that Harry Truman ordered it. It was from Harry Truman, himself!

I raised with one of the archivists at the Truman Library the President’s role in initiating the prosecution of Lynwood Shull for the blinding of Isaac Woodard, and he told me “you’re on to something here.  Someone needs to do some work on the impact of this case on President Truman.”  He sent me some letters that the President had written about Isaac Woodard, which I mentioned in my book.

Now I had two stories: Truman and Waring. And it would be untrue of me if I said I had a plan. I literally followed the stream where it took me and that’s where I ended up.

I mean, I kept thinking, “This is an unbelievable story; nobody’s going to believe this.”

Judge Waring likely witnessed in his everyday life the kinds of racial inequalities that ultimately gave rise to these cases. Why do you think seeing it in a courtroom versus seeing it out on the street changed his mind?

Well, Waring viewed this way of life to be baked into Southern culture. He’d always grown up in it; he never questioned it. Few white Southerners questioned it. His wife had come from Michigan, and she didn’t question it, either. It was just the way things were.

I’ve now read a fair amount about white Southerners who had awakenings about racial inequality. Virginia Durr, the great stalwart civil rights leader from Alabama, talks in her autobiography about this. One day you have this epiphany. It just knocks you down that you’ve lived this life and you’ve not questioned a shocking reality that you’ve just unquestionably accepted.

You’re absolutely right, he lived in the South, in Charleston, which was probably among the most segregated cities in America. He never questioned it. But then he observed this manifest injustice in the Woodard case. He started doubting and questioning this world he lived in.

He began reading. He has publicly recognized and referenced the books he had read. I read every one of them. And I can see that, if you’re reading this stuff as you are having an awakening, it would be powerful. Once you recognize this whole system of disenfranchisement, and once you start questioning it, there’s no backstop. You just sort of say, “This whole thing is wrong.” That’s really where he ended up. There was no way to split the difference.

You discuss at some length Judge Waring’s activities off the bench, including his extensive reading, that may have influenced his thinking. Can you talk more about that?

Some states have what they call “circuit riding judges,” which they can use when they don’t want the judge to live in the community where he practiced law — the aim there is to keep him where he doesn’t have ties to the community and loyalties and so forth.

The federal district courts are really very different. They’re designed so that you sit where you live. The idea is that you have a certain knowledge and awareness of the world you live in that gives you special insight as a judge.

And all of my colleagues read books. I mean, everybody reads books all the time. A lot of them fortunately are reading my book! That’s just what we do. For example, there are all these books out now on sentencing reform. I bet you half of the federal judges in American have read Bryan Stevenson’s book (Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption). That is just really part of being an informed citizen — you do this kind of stuff.

I would say that part of the genius of the system is that we judges are not separate. We don’t live like a monk away from the people; we live among the people and we see the world. So, no, I think what he did was exactly right and what judges do every day.

We attend theater, we read books, and we live among the culture. As you observe, you walk around and you see — “Why are African Americans sitting on only one side of the courthouse, under a sign that says ‘for colored only’?” So Judge Waring took the sign down.

Did Gunnar Myrdal influence him? Sure he did. Judge Waring read his 1,400-page book, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. It clearly influenced him. As it should have.

What do you think Judge Waring’s strengths were analytically?

He was a brilliant guy. He became quite a free thinker. It was necessary if we were going to escape Plessy v. Ferguson and Jim Crow. You had to think outside the box. You just could not just accept it and say, “Well, this is the precedent, and that’s the way it is. You can’t do anything about it. It’s not the court’s role to get involved.” That was not his approach to things. Being really smart helped. Reading a great deal helped him envision a different world.

I don’t have any doubt that the experience of the Holocaust was something that influenced that whole generation. Judge John J. Parker, who I write about, also had a very interesting history. He never went as far as Waring, but he certainly grew in office. He took a leave while on the Fourth Circuit to serve as a judge at the Nuremberg trials of accused Nazi war criminals. This was an important thing.

Even the things that might not seem very important today mattered at the time. Like when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball — it was huge at the time. He was this exciting African American player, a fine young man, and a veteran lieutenant in the military. It just hit America at the right moment.

What was it like to take on a book project of this magnitude?

It took me seven years. I’m slow. I did have this day job.

Once I started going, I was very methodical. I generally didn’t write during the week. I came into my office on Saturday morning, about 7 o’clock, and I worked basically every weekend, all weekend. I would take holidays. My wife and I would go to the mountains or the beach and for 10 days, over two weekends and I would write straight. One of my clerks called them my “writing holidays.” My wife recently joked with somebody that we did our vacations at the Library of Congress.

Narratively it’s a complex story. You have to explain the lives of three men — Truman, Waring, and Woodard — and then weave them all together. How did you go about that?

I started my research with Judge Waring, and soon realized the influence the Woodard blinding had on Judge Waring and the failure of the court system to hold the obviously culpable police officer accountable. I then discovered the personal role of President Truman in initiating the prosecution of the police officer who blinded Woodard. As I traced the story forward, I realized the Woodard incident had inspired both Judge Waring and President Truman to do remarkable and courageous things.

Once I pieced together the chronology of events, the story simply told itself. After realizing the significant influence the Woodard blinding had on Waring and Truman, I then discovered that the two met in the Oval Office in December 1948, a month after Truman’s stunning reelection victory. Waring had issued his courageous voting rights decisions and was probably the most reviled man in the white South.  Truman had ordered the immediate desegregation of the armed forces and had survived a third party challenge from the Dixiecrats. So what did these two men talk about? They began their discussion with Truman asking Waring whether he knew the story of the blinded black sergeant from South Carolina.  Waring told the President, “I tried that case.” This was a great story that needed to be told.

Do you think you’ve changed the way you do your job since writing this book?

I can’t say that I have in any way that I find perceptible. When I wrote this book, I read not just about Waring, but also about a lot of other judges, including the nine justices of the U.S. Supreme Court who decided Brown v. Board of Education.

I certainly admired their devotion to the rule of law and to the importance of treating the Constitution as a living document. I can’t say that was a new concept to me, but it certainly is an inspiring model. I speak to groups of judges all the time and they love the story for the same reason. It’s the highest calling of what we do.

A large portion of our readers are judges. What can they take away from Judge Waring’s experience?

I could answer that question a variety of different ways. What I’ve discovered is that this book is used by different people in very different ways. They take lessons from it, some I would’ve never even thought of, frankly. I just simply say, “I’m going to leave it to everybody to get their own lessons from the book.” Because it is amazing the different responses I have gotten to question of what the book teaches people.

In some ways, Judge Waring asks all of us for our better angels, right? That we would show “unexampled courage,” which is the term he used to refer to some of his civil rights plaintiffs. When the time and the person meet and the times demand you to do something that is against your personal interest but for a higher good — that you would step up. All of us hope we would do that. We don’t ever really know until that moment arrives.

NEXT: Read excerpts from Unexampled Courage

About Amelia Ashton Thorn

Amelia Ashton Thorn is the inaugural fellow at the Bolch Judicial Institute. She clerked for Justice Don R. Willett of the Texas Supreme Court (now of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit) as well as for Judge Harry T. Edwards of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. She subsequently worked as an associate at Williams & Connolly and Crowell & Moring, as well as an assistant general counsel at the American Chemistry Council, one of the nation’s oldest and largest trade associations.