How an Attack on a Black WWII Veteran Jump-Started the Civil Rights Movement

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Isaac Woodard
U.S. Army veteran Isaac Woodard (PBS)

U.S. Army Sgt. Isaac Woodard was traveling home after the war in 1946 when he wanted to relieve himself at a rest stop. The driver at first refused to let him off the bus and later called the cops. A local South Carolina chief of police viciously beat Woodard and caused him to go blind.

The PBS American Experience documentary series examines the Woodard story and its fallout in “The Blinding of Isaac Woodard,” a two-hour film set to premiere on Tuesday, March 30, at 9 p.m. ET. As with all PBS programming, make sure to check local listings. The program also will stream on PBS.org and in the PBS Video App.

It’s important to note that Woodard, 26 at the time, had just been discharged from Fort Gordon in Augusta, Georgia, and was wearing his Army uniform when the attack occurred. Woodard and thousands of men like him had put their lives on the line for freedom and were returning to a country where many didn’t want Black soldiers to enjoy all the privileges of service.

We’ve got a clip from the film that details the frustrations that Black soldiers felt upon their return to civilian life after the war.

The attack made headlines and emotions ramped up even more when Chief Lynwood Shull was acquitted of assault by an all-white jury. The national outrage reached the White House and directly inspired President Harry Truman’s executive order that desegregated the military and federal offices two years later.

The men and women who organized around Woodard’s cause became the backbone of the early civil rights movement and began the fight that led to the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education ruling in 1954. That order outlawed segregation in schools and led to the modern fight for civil rights that led to landmark legislation during the Lyndon B. Johnson administration.

Woodard, who died in 1992 at the age of 73, may be a little-known figure today, but his struggles led directly to the desegregation of the military. This documentary is a step toward giving him the recognition he deserves.

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