Book of the week
Unexampled Courage: The Blinding of Sgt. Isaac Woodard and the Awakening of President Harry S. Truman and Judge J. Waties Waring
So often, “we depend on the bravery of the few to right the wrongs of the many,” said Christopher Dickey in TheDailyBeast.com. Such was the case after Isaac Woodard, a black U.S. Army veteran traveling in uniform in 1946 had his eyes gouged with a nightstick during a brutal beating by a white South Carolina police chief. Though the police chief was acquitted by an all-white jury, the decision outraged the presiding judge and inspired him, in his mid-60s, to begin fighting from the bench for an end to racial injustice. His name, J. Waties Waring, isn’t widely known, nor are those of the 21 black plaintiffs who risked their lives to bring to Waring’s court the anti-segregation case he wanted, but they changed American history forever. As I read the gripping story in Unexampled Courage, “there were tears of rage,” but also tears of admiration for its several heroes.
Unfortunately, Woodard’s story can’t bear the weight that author Richard Gergel assigns to it, said Joseph Crespino in The Wall Street Journal. Gergel, a U.S. District Court judge based in Charleston, claims that the shocking case inspired the moral awakening of President Harry Truman, who in 1948 ordered the desegregation of the U.S. military—a crucial civil rights advance. But Woodard’s case wasn’t the only incident of postwar racial violence that Truman spoke about at the time, and he was also motivated by his need to win black votes in the 1948 election. Waring, too, wasn’t transformed by the Woodard story alone: The blue-blooded Charleston native had begun his late-career assault on racial discrimination at least two years before Woodard was attacked. Still, it’s “impossible to deny” that Waring and Woodard were pivotal figures, said David Blight in The New York Times. In a 1951 South Carolina case, Waring wrote a dissenting opinion that provided the basis for the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, which ended school segregation.
Gergel tells us that the story’s outcome redeemed the U.S. justice system, said Kenneth Mack in The Washington Post. “Some readers of his book, however, might draw from it more-disturbing conclusions about America’s racial past—as well as its present.” Waring did much to improve race relations in this country, but neither he nor anyone else has been able to end the country’s long history of racial violence. Gergel is well aware of that. Four years ago, a young white gunman massacred nine black worshippers in a Charleston church; he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death in Gergel’s court. ■